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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Systematical monopoly of confidence. -- Character of ministers -- Of their dependents. -- Venality of courts. -- Universality of this principle.
{414} We shall be better enabled to judge of the dispositions with which information is communicated and measures are executed in monarchical countries, if we reflect upon another of the evil consequences attendant upon this species of government, the existence and corruption of courts.

The character of this, as well as of every other human institution, arises out of the circumstances with which it is surrounded. Ministers and favourites are a sort of people who have a state prisoner in their custody, the whole management of whose understanding and actions they can easily engross. This they completely effect with a weak and credulous master, nor can the most cautious and penetrating entirely elude their machinations. They unavoidably desire to continue in the administration of his functions, whether it be emolument, or the love of homage, or any more generous motive by which they are {415} attached to it. But the more they are confided in by the sovereign, the greater will be the permanence of their situation, and the more exclusive is their possession of his ear, the more implicit will be his confidence. The wisest of mortals are liable to error; the most judicious projects are open to specious and superficial objections; and it can rarely happen but a minister will find his ease and security in excluding as much as possible other and opposite advisers, whose acuteness and ingenuity are perhaps additionally whetted by a desire to succeed to his office.

Ministers become a sort of miniature kings in their turn. Though they have the greatest opportunity of observing the impotence and unmeaningness of the character, they yet envy it. It is their trade perpetually to extol the dignity and importance of the master they serve; and men cannot long anxiously endeavour to convince others of the truth of any proposition without becoming half convinced of it themselves. They feel themselves dependent for all that they most ardently desire upon this man's arbitrary will; but a sense of inferiority is perhaps the never failing parent of emulation or envy. They assimilate themselves therefore of choice to a man to whose circumstances their own are considerably similar.

In reality the requisites, without which monarchical government cannot be preserved in existence, are by no means sufficiently {416} supplied by the mere intervention of ministers. There must be the ministers of ministers, and a long bead roll of subordination descending by tedious and complicated steps. Each of these lives on the smile of the minister, as he lives on the smile of the sovereign. Each of these has his petty interests to manage, and his empire to employ under the guise of servility. Each imitates the vices of his superior, and exacts from others the adulation he is obliged to pay.

It has already appeared that a king is necessarily and almost unavoidably a despot in his heart. He has been used to hear those things only which were adapted to give him pleasure; and it is with a grating and uneasy sensation that he listens to communications of a different sort. He has been used to unhesitating compliance; and it is with difficulty he can digest expostulation and opposition. Of consequence the honest and virtuous character, whose principles are clear and unshaken, is least qualified for his service; he must either explain away the severity of his principles, or he must give place to a more crafty and temporising politician. The temporising politician expects the same pliability in others that he exhibits in himself; and the fault which he can least forgive is an ill timed and inauspicious scrupulosity.

Expecting this compliance from all the coadjutors and instruments of his designs, he soon comes to set it up as a standard {417} by which to judge of the merit of all other men. He is deaf to every recommendation but that of a fitness for the secret service of government, or a tendency to promote his interest and extend the sphere of his influence. The worst man with this argument in his favour will seem worthy of encouragement; the best man who has no advocate but virtue to plead for him will be treated with superciliousness and neglect. It is true the genuine criterion of human desert can never be superseded and reversed. But it will appear to be reversed, and appearance will produce many of the effects of reality. To obtain honour it will be thought necessary to pay a servile court to administration, to bear with unaltered patience their contumely and scorn, to flatter their vices, and render ourselves useful to their private gratification. To obtain honour it will be thought necessary by assiduity and intrigue to make to ourselves a party, to procure the recommendation of lords and the good word of women of pleasure and clerks in office. To obtain honour it will be thought necessary to merit disgrace. The whole scene consists in hollowness, duplicity and falshood. The minister speaks fair to the man he despises, and the slave pretends a generous attachment, while he thinks of nothing but his personal interest. That these principles are interspersed under the worst governments with occasional deviations into better it would be folly to deny; that they do not form the great prevailing features wherever a court and a monarch are to be found it would be madness to assert. {418}

The fundamental disadvantage of such a form of government is, that it renders things of the most essential importance subject through successive gradations to the caprice of individuals. The suffrage of a body of electors will always bear a resemblance more or less remote to the public sentiment. The suffrage of an individual will depend upon caprice, personal convenience or pecuniary corruption. If the king be himself inaccessible to injustice, if the minister disdain a bribe, yet the fundamental evil remains, that kings and ministers, fallible themselves, must upon a thousand occasions depend upon the recommendation of others. Who will answer for these through all their classes, officers of state and deputies of department, humble friends and officious valets, wives and daughters, concubines and confessors?

It is supposed by many, that the existence of permanent hereditary distinction is necessary to the maintenance of order among beings so imperfect as the human species. But it is allowed by all, that permanent heredity distinction is a fiction of policy, not an ordinance of immutable truth. Wherever it exists, the human mind, so far as relates to political society, is prevented from settling upon its true foundation. There is a perpetual struggle between the genuine sentiments of understanding, which tells us that all this is an imposition, and the imperious voice of government, which bids us, Reverence and obey. In this unequal contest, alarm and apprehension will perpetually haunt the minds of those who exercise usurped power. In this artificial {419} state of man powerful engines must be employed to prevent him from rising to his true level. It is the business of the governors to persuade the governed, that it is their interest to be slaves. They have no other means by which to create this fictitious interest, but those which they derive from the perverted understandings and burdened property of the public, to be returned in titles, ribbands and bribes. Hence that system of universal corruption without which monarchy could not exist.

It has sometimes been supposed that corruption is particularly incident to a mixed government. 'In such a government the people possess a certain portion of freedom; privilege finds its place as well as prerogative; a certain sturdiness of manner and consciousness of independence are the natives of these countries. The country gentleman will not abjure the dictates of his judgment without a valuable consideration. There is here more than one road to success; popular favour is as sure a means of advancement as courtly patronage. In despotic countries the people may be driven like sheep; however unfortunate is their condition, they know of no other, and they submit to it as an inevitable calamity. Their characteristic feature is a torpid dullness in which all the energies of man are forgotten. But in a country calling itself free the minds of the inhabitants are in a perturbed and restless state, and extraordinary means must be employed to calm their vehemence.' It has sometimes happened to men whose hearts have been pervaded with the love of {420} virtue, of which pecuniary prostitution is the most odious corruption, to prefer, while they have contemplated this picture, an acknowledged despotism to a state of specious and imperfect liberty.

But this picture is not accurate. As much of it as relates to a mixed government must be acknowledged to be true. But the features of despotism are much too favourably touched. Whether privilege be conceded by the forms of the constitution or no, a whole nation cannot be kept ignorant of its force. No people were ever yet so sunk in stupidity as to imagine one man, because he bore the appellation of a king, literally equal to a million. In a whole nation, as monarchical nations at least must be expected to be constituted, there will be nobility and yeomanry, rich and poor. There will be persons who by their situation, or their wealth, or their talents, form a middle rank between the monarch and the vulgar, and who by their confederacies and their intrigues can hold the throne in awe. These men must be bought or defied. There is no disposition that clings so close to despotism as incessant terror and alarm. What else gave birth to the armies of spies and the numerous state prisons under the late government of France? The eye of the tyrant is never closed. How numerous are the precautions and jealousies that these terrors dictate? No man can go out or come into the country but he is watched. The press must issue no productions that have not the imprimatur of government. {421} All coffee houses and places of public resort are objects of attention. Twenty people cannot be collected together, unless for the purposes of superstition, but it is immediately suspected that they may be conferring about their rights. Is it to be supposed, that, where the means of jealousy are employed, the means of corruption will be forgotten? Were it so indeed, the case would not be much improved. No picture can be more disgustful, no state of mankind more depressing, than that in which a whole nation is held in obedience by the mere operation of fear, in which all that is most eminent among them, and that should give example to the rest, is prevented under the severest penalties from expressing its real sentiments, and by necessary consequence from forming any sentiments that are worthy to be expressed. But in reality fear was never employed for these purposes alone. No tyrant was ever so unsocial as to have no confederates in his guilt. This monstrous edifice will always be found supported by all the various instruments for perverting the human character, severity, menaces, blandishments, professions and bribes. To this it is in a great degree owing that monarchy is so very costly an establishment. It is the business of the despot to distribute his lottery of seduction into as many prizes as possible. Among the consequences of a pecuniary polity these are to be reckoned the foremost, that every man is supposed to have his price, and that, the corruption being managed in an underhand manner, many a man, {422} who appears a patriot, may be really a hireling; by which means virtue itself is brought into discredit, is either regarded as mere folly and romance, or observed with doubt and suspicion, as the cloke of vices which are only the more humiliating the more they are concealed.