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John Henry Newman:
Who is to Blame?
[On the nature of constitutional government]

It is a common saying that political power is founded on opinion; this is true, if the word "opinion" be understood in the widest sense of which it is capable. A State depends and rests, not simply on force of arms, not on logic, not on anything short of the sentiment and will of those who are governed. This doctrine does not imply instability and change as inherent characteristics of a body politic. Since no one can put off his opinions in a moment, or by willing it, since those opinions may be instincts, principles, beliefs, conviction, since they may be self-evident, since they may be religious truths, it may be easily understood how a national polity, as being the creation and development of a multitude of men having all the same opinions, may stand of itself, and be most firmly established, and may be practically secure against reverse. And thus it is that the countries become settled, with a definite form of social union, and an ascendancy of law and order; not as if that particular settlement, union, form, order, and law were self-sanctioned and self-supported, but because it is founded in the national mind, and maintained by the force of a living tradition. This, then, is what I mean by a State; and, being the production and outcome of a people, it is necessarily for the good of the people, and it has two main elements, power and liberty,-for without power there is no protection, and without liberty there is nothing to protect. The seat of power is the Government; the seat of liberty is the Constitution.

You will say that this implies that every State must have a Constitution; so I think it has, in the sense in which I have explained the word. As the governing power may be feeble and unready, so the check upon its arbitrary exercise may be partial and uncertain; it may be rude, circuitous, abrupt, or violent; it need not be scientifically recognized and defined; but there never has been, there never can be, in any political body, an instance of unmitigated absolutism. Human nature does not allow of it. In pure despotism, the practical limitation of the ruler's power lies in his personal fears, in the use of the dagger or the bowstring. These expedients have been brought into exercise before now, both by our foes, the Russians, and still more so, by our friends, the Turks. Nay, when the present war began, some of our self-made politicians put forward the pleasant suggestion that the Czar's assassination at the hands of his subjects, maddened by taxes and blockades, was a possible path to the triumph of the allies.

Such is the lawless remedy which nature finds for a lawless tyranny, and no one will deny that such a savage justice is national in certain states of Society, and has a traditional authority, and may in a certain sense be called Constitutional. As society becomes civilized, the checks on arbitrary power assume a form in accordance with a more cultivated morality. We have one curious specimen of a Constitutional principle, preserved to us in the Medo-Persian Empire. It was a wholesome and subtle provision, adopting the semblance of an abject servility suitable to the idea of a despotism, which proclaimed the judgment of the despot infallible, and his word irrevocable. Alexander felt what it was to do irrevocable acts in the physical order, when, in the plenitude of his sovereignty, he actually killed his friend in the banquet; and, as to the vulgar multitude, this same natural result, the remedy or penalty of reckless power, is expressed in the impolite proverb, "Give a rogue rope enough, and he will hang himself." With a parallel significance, then, it was made a sacred principle among the Medo-Persians, which awed and sobered the monarch himself, from its surpassing inconvenience, that what he once had uttered had the force of fate. It was the punishment of his greatness, that, when Darius would have saved the prophet Daniel from the operation of a law, which the king had been flattered into promulgating, he could not do so.

A similar check upon the tyranny of power, assuming the character of generation and homage, is the form and etiquette which is commonly thrown round a monarch. By irresistible custom, a ceremonial more or less stringent has been made almost to enter into his essential idea, for we know majesty without its externals is a jest; and, while to lay it aside is to relinquish the discriminating badge which is his claim upon the homage of his subjects, to observe it is to surrender himself manacled and fettered into their hands. It is said a king of Spain was roasted to death because the proper official was not found in time to wheel away his royal person from the fire. If etiquette hindered him from saving his own life, etiquette might also impose an obstacle to his taking the life of another. If it was so necessary for Sancho Panza, governor of Barataria, to eat his dinner with the sanction of the court physician on every dish, other great functionaries of State might possibly be conditions of other indulgences on his part which were less reasonable and less imperative. As for our own most gracious Sovereign, she is honoured with the Constitutional prerogative that "the king can do no wrong"; that is, he can do no political act of his own mere will at all.

It is, then, no paradox to say that every State has in some sense a Constitution; that is, a set of traditions, depending, not on formal enactment, but on national acceptance, in one way or other restrictive of the ruler's power; though in one country more scientifically developed than another, or more distinctly recognized, or more skillfully and fully adapted to their end. There is a sort of analogy between the political and the physical sense of the word. A man of good constitution is one who has something more in life,-viz., a bodily soundness, organic and functional, which will bring him safely through hardships, or illnesses, or dissipations. On the other hand, no one is altogether without a constitution: to say he has nothing to fall back upon, when his health is tried, is almost to pronounce that his life is an accident, and that he may at any moment be carried off. And, in like manner, that must be pronounced no State, but a mere fortuitous collection of individuals, which has no unity stronger than despotism, or deeper than law.

I am not sure how far it bears upon the main proposition to which these remarks are meant to conduct us, but at least it will illustrate the general subject, if I ask your leave to specify, as regards the depository of political power, four Constitutional principles, distinct in kind from each other, which, among other parallel ones, have had an historical existence. If they must have names given them, they may be called respectively the principles of co-ordination, subordination, delegation, and participation.

1. As all political power implies unity, the word coordination may seem inconsistent with its essential idea: and yet there is a state of society, in which the limitation of despotism is by the voice of the people so unequivocally committed to an external authority, that we must speak of it as the Constitution of such a State, in spite of the seeming anomaly. Such is the recognition of the authority of Religion, as existing in its own substantive institutions, external to the strictly political framework, which even in pagan countries has been at times successfully used to curb the extravagances of absolute power. Putting paganism aside, we find in the history both of Israel and of Judah the tyranny of kings brought within due limits by the priests and prophets, as by legitimate and self-independent authorities. The same has been the case in Christian times. The Church is essentially a popular institution, defending the cause and encouraging the talents of the lower classes, and interposing an external barrier in favour of high or low against the ambition and the rapacity of the temporal power. 1f the Christian Church had not existed," says M. Guizot, "the whole world would have been abandoned to unmitigated material force." However, as the corrective principle is in this instance external to the State, though having its root internally in national opinion, it cannot, except improperly, be termed Constitutional.

2. Next 1 come to the principle of subordination, which has been commonly found in young, semi-barbarous states both in Europe and Asia, and has attained its most perfect form in what is called the Feudal System. It has had a military origin; and, after the pattern of an army, is carried out in an hierarchy of chiefs, one under the other, each of whom in consequence had direct jurisdiction only over a few. First came the suzerian, or lord paramount, who had the allegiance of a certain number of princes, dukes, counts, or even kings. These were his feudatories,-that is, they owed him certain military services, and held their respective territories of him. Their vassals, in turn, were the barons, each under his own prince or duke, and owing him a similar service. Under the barons were the soldiers, each settled down on his own portion of land, with the peasants of the soil as his serfs, and with similar feudal duties to his own baron. A system like this furnished a most perfect expedient against absolutism. Power was distributed among many persons, without confusion or the chance of collision; and, while the paucity of vassals under one and the same rule gave less scope to tyrannical excesses, it created an effective public opinion, which is strongest when the relation between governor and governed is most intimate. Moreover, if any one were disposed to play the tyrant, there were several distinct parties in a condition to unite against him; the barons and lower class against the king, the king and the lower class against the barons. The barbarities of the middle ages have been associated in men's minds with this system; but, whatever they were, they surely took place in spite of it, not through it,-just as the anti-Catholic virulence of the present race of Englishmen is mitigated, not caused, by the British Constitution.

3. By the principle of delegation, I mean that according to which power is committed for a certain time to individuals, with a commensurate responsibility, to be met whenever that time has expired. Thus the Roman Dictator, elected on great emergencies, was autocrat during the term of his rule. Thus a commander of an army has unfettered powers to do what he will, while his command continues; or the captain of a ship; but afterwards his acts are open to inquiry, and, if so be, to animadversion. There are great advantages to a system like this; it is the mode of bringing out great men, and of working great measures. You choose the fittest man for each department; you frankly trust him, you heap powers upon him, you generously support him with your authority, you let him have his own way, you let him do his best. Afterwards you review his proceedings; you reward or censure him. Such, again, in fact, is with us the liberty of the press, censorship being simply unconstitutional, and the court of law, the remedy against seditious, libelous, or demoralizing publications. Here, too, your advantage is great; you form public opinion, and you ascertain the national mind.

4. The very opposite to this is the principle of participation. It is that by which a People would leave nothing to its rulers, but has itself, or by its immediate instruments, a concurrent part in everything that is done. Acting on the notion that no one is to be trusted, even for a time, and that every act of its officials is to be jealously watched, it never commits power without embarrassing its exercise. Instead of making a venture for the transcendent, it keeps fast by a safe mediocrity. It rather trusts a dozen persons than one to do its work. This is the great principle of boards and officers, engaged in checking each other, with a second apparatus to check the first apparatus, and other functionaries to keep an eye on both of them,-Tom helping Jack, and Jack waiting for Bill, till the end is lost in the means. Such seems to have been the principle of the military duties perfortned by the Aulic Council in Germany, which virtually co operated with Napoleon in his victories in that country. Such is the great principle of committees of taste, which have covered this fair land with architectural monstrosities. And as being closely allied to the prin , ciple of comprehension and compromise (a principle, necessary indeed, in some shape, but admitting of ruinous excess), it has had an influence on our national action in matters more serious than architecture or sculpture. And it has told directly upon our political efficiency.

***

The social union promises two great and contrary advantages, Protection and Liberty, -such protection as shall not interfere with liberty, and such liberty as shall not interfere with protection. How much a given nation can secure of the one, and how much of the other, depends on its peculiar circumstances. As there are small frontier territories, which find it their interest to throw themselves into the hands of some great neighhour, sacrificing their liberties as the price of purchasing safety from barbarians or rivals, so too there are countries which, in the absence of external danger, have abandoned themselves to the secure indulgence of freedom, to the jealous exercise of self-government, and to the scientific formation of a Constitution. And as, when liberty has to be surrendered for protection, the Horse must not be surprised if the Man whips or spurs him, so, when protection is neglected for the sake of liberty, he must not be surprised if he suffers from the horns of the Stag.

Protected by the sea, and gifted with a rare energy, self-possession, and imperturbability, the English people have been able to carry out self-government to its limits, and to absorb into its constitutional action many of those functions which are necessary for the protection of any country, and commonly belong to the Executive; and triumphing in their marvelous success they have thought no task too hard for them, and have from time to time attempted more than even England could accomplish. Such a crisis has come upon us now, and the Constitution has not been equal to the occasion. For a year past we have been conducting a great war on our Constitutional routine, and have not succeeded in it. If we continue that routine, we shall have more failures, with France or Russia (whichever you please) to profit by it:-if we change it, we change what after all is Constitutional. It is this dilemma which makes me wish for peace,-or else whom Deus ~ machind, some one greater even than Wellington, to carry us through. We cannot depend upon Constitutional routine.

People abuse routine, and say that all the mischief which happens is the fault of routine; -but can they get out of routine, without getting out of the Constitution? That is the question. The fault of a routine Executive, I suppose, is not that the Executive always goes on in one way,---else, system is in fault,-but that it goes on in a bad way, or on a bad system. We must either change the system, then,-our Constitutional system; or not find fault with its routine, which is according to it. The present Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry, for instance, is either a function and instrument of the routine system,-and therefore is making bad worse,-or is not,-and then perhaps it is only the beginning of an infringement of the Constitution. There may be Constitutional failures which have no Constitutional remedies, unwilling as we may be to allow it. They may be necessarily incidental to a free self-governing people.

The Executive of a nation is the same all over the world being, in other words, the administration of the nation's affairs; it differs in different countries, not in its nature and office, nor in its ends, acts, or functions, but in its characteristics, as being prompt, direct, effective, or the contrary; that is, as being strong or feeble. If it pursues its ends earnestly, performs its acts vigorously and discharges its functions successfully, then it is a strong Executive; if otherwise, it is feeble. Now, it is obvious, the more it is concentrated, that is, the fewer are its springs, and the simpler its mechanism, the stronger it is, because it has least friction and loss of power; on the other hand, the more numerous and widely dispersed its centres of action are, and the more complex and circuitous their interaction, the more feeble it is. It is strongest, then, when it is lodged in one man out of the whole nation; it is feeblest, when it is lodged, by participation or conjointly, in every man in it. How can we help what is self-evident? If the English people lodge power in the many, not in the few, what wonder that is operation is roundabout, clumsy, slow, intermittent, and disappointing? And what is the good of finding fault with the routine, if it is after all the principle of the routine, or the system, or the Constitution, which causes the hitch? You cannot eat your cake and have it; you cannot be at once a self-governing nation and have a strong government. Recollect Wellington's question in opposition to the Reform Bill, "How is the King's Govemment to be carried on?" We are beginning to experience its full meaning.

A people so alive, so curious, so busy as the English, will be a power in themselves, independently of political arrangements; and will be on that very ground jealous of a rival, impatient of a master, and strong enough to cope with the one and to withstand the other. A government is their natural foe; they cannot do without it altogether, but they will have of it as little as they can. They will forbid the concentration of power; they will multiply its seats, complicate its acts, and make it safe by making it inefficient. They will take care that it is the worst-worked of all the many organizations which are found in their country. As despotisms keep their subjects in ignorance, lest they should rebel, so will a free people maim and cripple their government, lest it should tyrannize.

This is human nature; the more powerful a man is, the more jealous is he of other powers. Little men endure little men; but great men aim at a solitary grandeur. The English nation is intensely conscious of itself; it has seen, inspected, recognized, appreciated, and warranted itself. It has erected itself into a personality, under the style and title of John Bull. Most neighhourly is he when let alone; but irritable, when commanded or coerced. He wishes to form his own judgment in all matters, and to have everything proved to him; he dislikes the thought of generously placing his interests in the hands of others, he grudges to give up what he cannot really keep himself, and sticklers for being at least a sleeping partner in transactions which are beyond him. He pays his people for their work, and is as proud of them, if they do it well, as a rich man of his tall footmen.

Policy might teach him a different course. If you want your work done well, which you cannot do yourself, find the best man, put it into his hand, and trust him implicitly. An Englishman is too sensible not to understand this in private matters; but in matters of State he is afraid of such a policy. He prefers the system of checks and counter-checks, the division of Power, the imperative concurrence of disconnect officials, and his own supervision and revision,-the method of hitches, cross-purposes, collisions, deadlocks, to the experiment of treating his public servants as gentlemen. I am not quarreling with what is inevitable in his system of selfgovernment; I only say that he cannot expect his work done in the best style, if this is his mode of providing for it. Duplicate functionaries do but merge responsibility; and a jealous master is paid with formal, heartless service. Do your footmen love you across the gulf which you have fixed between them and you? and can you expect your store-keepers and harbour-masters at Balaklava not to serve you by rule and precedent, not to be rigid in their interpretation of your orders, and to commit themselves as little as they can, when you show no belief in their zeal, and have no mercy on their failures?

England, surely, is the paradise of little men, and the purgatory of great ones. May I never be a Minister of State or a Field-Marshal! I'd be an individual, selfrespecting Briton, in my own private castle, with the Times to see the world by, and pen and paper to scribble off withal to some public print, and set the world right. Public men are only my employes; I use them as I think fit, and turn them off without warning. Aberdeen, Gladstone, Sidney Herbert, Newcastle, what are they muttering about services and ingratitude? were they not paid? hadn't they their regular quarter-day? Raglan, Burgoyne, Dundas, -I cannot recollect all the fellows' names,can they merit aught? can they be profitable to me their lord and master? And so, having no tenderness or respect for their persons, their antecedents, or their age,-not caring that in fact they are serving me with all their strength, not asking whether, if they manage ill, it be not, perchance, because they are in the fetters of Constitutional red tape, which have weighed on their hearts and deadened their energies, till the hazard of failure and the fear of censure have quenched the spirit of daring, I think it becoming and generous,-during, not after their work, not when it is ended, but in the very agony of conflict,-to institute a formal process of inquiry into their demerits, not secret, not indulgent to their sense of honour, but in the hearing of all Europe, and amid the scorn of the world,-hitting down, knocking over, my workhouse apprentices, in order that they may get up again, and do my matters for me better.

How far these ways of managing a crisis can be amended in a self-governing Nation, it is most difficult to say. They are doubly deplorable, as being both unjust and impolitic. They are kind, neither to ourselves, nor to our public servants; and they so unpleasantly remind one of certain passages of Athenian history, as to suggest that perhaps they must ever more or less exist, except where a despotism, by simply extinguishing liberty, effectually prevents it abuse.


Source:


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© Paul Halsall, July 1998
halsall@murray.fordham.edu