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what could not otherwise be extorted by force. When this moderation fails on either side, the constitution totters.”1
It follows evidently from what has been said, that the less invidious the legal distinctions are which are made between the two orders, the more quiet and permanent the government is likely to be. How mortifying, for example, was the law at Rome, inserted by the Decemvirs in the two last tables, by which the patricians were forbidden to marry plebeians ;—"a law,” says Montesquieu, “ that had no other effect than to render the patricians, on the one side, more haughty, and on the other, more odious."* It is a grievance still more liable to be abused, when an unjust distinction is made between the two orders in respect of taxation, as when the nobles assume the privilege of paying none, or when, as in some aristocracies of Italy, they commit frauds to exempt themselves. Montesquieu observes, that while Rome inclined towards Aristocracy she avoided all these inconveniences. “ The magistrates never received any emoluments from their office. The chief men of the Republic were taxed like the rest, nay heavier, and sometimes the taxes fell upon them alone. In a word,” says he, “ far from sharing among themselves the revenues of the state, all they could draw from the public treasure, and all the wealth that fortune threw in their way, they bestowed freely on the people, that they might not envy them their honours.” † The same author remarks, how very essential a point it is in an Aristocracy that the nobles should not levy the taxes. If they did, the property of the people would be at the discretion of those in public employments, and there would be no superior tribunal to check their power. $
The most favourable view which can be taken of an Aristocratical government is, when we confine the attention solely to the character and manners of the superior order. There is, undoubtedly, a set of virtues, and of very splendid virtues, naturally connected with hereditary rank and the pride of family:-Independence and elevation of mind, sincerity, disin1 Essay on Civil Society, Part I. * [Esprit, &c., Liv. V. chap. viii.]
terestedness, generosity, and personal intrepidity and gallantry. I acknowledge, too, that there are aristocratical vices, originating in what a patrician historian of Rome represents as the constitutional disease of his own order ;—“ Contemptor animus et superbia ; commune nobilitatis malum."* But the effects of these operate chiefly in the narrow circle of private life, and are not apt to strike the attention of foreign nations. Where the lucrative arts are abandoned to an inferior description of men, the nobles may be expected to be free from those defects which are often connected with the commercial character ; but it must be remembered, that in proportion as we elevate in this way one class of the community, we depress another, which is far more numerous ; and it is surely not compatible with an equitable government, to sacrifice the dignity and the happiness of one order of men to those of another. We are, indeed, too often apt to forget this consideration; and, when the imagination is dazzled with the splendour of aristocratic qualities, to overlook the immense price at which they have been purchased.
In Sparta, where every freeman was relieved completely of all solicitude about private interest, a national character was formed, which, in point of elevation and heroism, exceeds everything else in the history of mankind ; and although in our cooler moments, our indignation rises at the cruel and unjust degradation of the Helots; yet, “ when,” in the language of Dr. Ferguson, “ we think only of the superior order of men in the state; when we attend to that elevation and magnanimity of spirit, for which dangers had no terror, interest no means to corrupt; when we consider them as friends, or as citizens, we are apt to forget, like themselves, that slaves have a title to be treated like men.”+
If we should suppose an Aristocracy in which the nobles applied themselves to commerce, the evils of this form of government would be greatly aggravated, as they would probably add rapacity and fraud to the vices connected with their elevated rank. Accordingly, Montesquieu mentions this as a
* (Sallust, Jug. cap. 64.] + [Essay on Civil Society, Part IV. sect. ii.]
fundamental principle in an Aristocracy, that the nobles should be prohibited every kind of commerce. “Merchants," says he, “ of such unbounded credit, would monopolize all to themselves. Commerce is the profession of people who stand on an equality. Hence, among despotic States, the most miserable are those in which the prince applies himself to trade,
“ The laws of Venice debar the nobles from commerce. One of their laws, in particular, forbids the Senatus to have any ship at sea that holds above forty bushels.”1
I before took notice (supra, p. 366, seq.] of the difficulty of securing in a Democracy a faithful execution of equitable laws after they are enacted. This has given rise to the Censorial Office. The same difficulty occurs in an Aristocracy, and has suggested the institution, either of temporary or perpetual magistrates, as a check upon the nobles. Hence the State inquisitors at Venice, magistrates who are subject to no formalities. Hence, too, the Ephori at Sparta. 2
For the preservation, however, of an Aristocracy, it is necessary not only that the nobles should have a spirit of Moderation towards the people: it is farther necessary that they should have a spirit of moderation with respect to their own order ; for if one' family should aspire to an elevation above the rest, the constitution would be changed into a mixed monarchy. Accordingly, it appears from a variety of passages in Montesquieu, that he also included this circumstance in the principle he has assigned to this form of government. It is much to be regretted that this ingenious and profound writer is not always precise and uniform in his use of words, and sometimes employs the same expression in very different senses.
In order to maintain, as far as possible, an equality among the nobles, Montesquieu* remarks that no countenance should be given by the laws to the distinctions which vanity founds 1 Esprit, &c., Liv.V. chap. viii. 2 Montesquieu, ibid. See also De
Lolme, [Constitution of England, II. + [Ibid.]
upon the nobility or antiquity of families. Pretences of this nature ought to be ranked among the weaknesses of private persons. It is farther expedient, that the right of primogeniture should be abolished, (which is the case at Venice,) that by a continual division of the inheritances, the fortunes of the nobles may be kept nearly on a level; and generally, that all those contrivances should be excluded which have been introduced into monarchical governments for the purpose of perpetuating the grandeur of families.
The corruption of Aristocracy in the language of the ancient politicians is called Oligarchy. It has been sometimes defined to be the government of the rich over the poor ; but the true idea of it seems to be a government where the ruling order have in view not the public interest, but the maintenance of their own influence and authority. According to Aristotle,1 “ a constitution may be excellent, whether the executive power rest in the hands of one person ; whether it be divided among many; or whether it continue in the hands of the people; but that power will become fatal if monarchy degenerates into tyranny, if Aristocracy is turned into Oligarchy, or if the Democratic authority, falling again into the lower classes of the people, produces nothing but tumult and anarchy.”
He afterwards tells us more explicitly, that “ a tyrant is a monarch who rules with no other view than the benefit of himself and his family. Aristocracy degenerates into Oligarchy, when the few, who are rich, govern the State as best suits the interests of their avarice and ambition ; and a Republic degenerates into a Democracy, when the many, who are poor, make the gratification of their own passions the only rule of their administration. Wherever wealth alone opens the road to preferment, Oligarchy prevails ; poverty, on the other hand, is the constant attendant of Democracy, and the distinctive character of those governments consists not in this, that the many or the few bear sway, but in the one case, that rapacious poverty be armed with power; and in the other, that contemptuous opulence be invested with authority. But as emi
1 Politics, Book III. chap. v.
nence in wealth can only fall to the share of a few, and as all may participate the advantages of equal freedom, the partisans of the rich and of the multitude agitate republican states, each faction striving to engross the government.”—(Gillies's translation.)
Hence it appears, that by an Oligarchy, Aristotle meant an aristocratical government, in which the common good of the state (which ought to be the end of every political establishment) is sacrificed to the interest or to the passions of the rulers. That all hereditary Aristocracies have a strong tendency to degenerate into Oligarchies, is confirmed by the universal experience of mankind, and is acknowledged by the violent and tyrannical regulations (such as the institution of Inquisitors, &c.) which have been devised as a remedy against this source of corruption. At the same time it must be confessed, that an hereditary aristocratical assembly is less in danger of running into Oligarchy, than a single assembly chosen at short intervals by the people, and vested completely with the authority of the state. The leading members of the assembly possessing (in such democratic establishments) the appointment of judges, and the appointment to all lucrative and honourable offices, they have thus the power to bend the whole executive and judicial authority to their own private interest, and by this means to increase their own reputation, wealth, and influence, and those of their party, at every new election; whereas, in a simple hereditary aristocracy, it is the interest of the members in general to preserve an equality among themselves as long as they can ; and as they are smaller in number and have more knowledge, they can more easily unite for that purpose, and there is no opportunity for any one to increase his power by the management of elections. An aspiring chief, for the same reasons, in an hereditary Aristocracy, has more obstacles in the way of his ambition, than an aspiring demagogue in a pure Democracy. We may add, that if he should succeed in the attainment of his object, the danger to the public is infinitely less alarming; for the power of a
Adams On the American Constitution, Vol. III. p. 286. VOL. IX.