Book 5, Chapter 05 : Of Courts and Ministers
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Book 5, Chapter 05
Systematical monopoly of confidence. - Charac- ter of ministers and their dependents. - Dupticiy of courts. - Venality and corruption. - Universality of this principle.
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 ill 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 favorites 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 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 envy it. It is their trade perpetually to extoll the dignity and importance of the master they serve; and men cannot long anxiously endeavor 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 supplied by the mere intervention of ministers. There must be the ministers of ministers, and a long beadroll 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 vises 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.1 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 temporizing politician. The temporizing politician expects the same pliability in others that he exhibits in himself, and the fault which he can least forgive is an ill timed an inauspicious scrupulosity.
Expecting this compliance from all the coadjutors and instruments of his designs, he soon comes to set it up as a standard by which to judge of the merit of 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 favor, 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. The genuine criterion of human desert can scarcely indeed be superseded and reversed. But it will appear to be reversed, and appearance will produce many of the effects of reality. To obtain honor, it will be thought necessary to pay a servile court to administration, to bear, with unaltered patience, their contumely and scorn, to flatter their vises, and render ourselves useful to their private gratification. To obtain honor, it will be thought necessary, by assiduity and intrigue, to make ourselves a party, to procure the recommendation of lords, and the good word of women of pleasure, and clerks in office. To obtain honor, it will be thought necessary to merit disgrace. The whole scene conflicts in hollowness, duplicity and falsehood. 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.
There is one feature above all others which has never escaped the most superficial delineator of the manners of a court; I mean the profound dissimulation which is there cultivated. The minister has, in the first place, to deceive the sovereign, continually to pretend to feel whatever his master feels, to ingratiate himself by an uniform insincerity, and to make a show of the most unreserved affection and attachment. His next duty, is to cheat his dependents and the candidates for office; to keep them in a perpetual fever of desire and expectation. Recollect the scene of a ministerial levee. To judge by the external appearance, we should suppose this to be the chosen seat of disinterested kindness. All that is erect and decisive in man is shamelessly surrendered. No professions of submission can be so base, no forms of adulation so extravagant, but that they are eagerly practiced by these voluntary prostitutes. Yet it is notorious that, in this scene above all others, hatred has fixed its dwelling; jealousy rankles in every breast; and the most of its personages would rejoice in the opportunity of ruining each other for ever. Here it is that promises, protestations and oaths are so wantonly multiplied as almost to have lost their meaning. There is scarcely a man so weak as, when he has received a court promise, not to tremble, lest it should be found as false and unsubstantial by him, as it has proved to so many others.
At length, by the constant practice of dissimulation, the true courtier comes to be unable to distinguish, among his own sentiments, the pretended from the real. He arrives at such proficiency in his art as to have neither passions nor attachments. Personal kindness, and all consideration for the merit of others, are swallowed up in a narrow and sordid ambition; not that generous ambition for the esteem of mankind, which reflects a sort of splendor upon vise itself, but an ambition of selfish gratification and illiberal intrigue. Such a man has bid a long farewell to every moral restraint, and thinks his purposes cheaply promoted by the sacrifice of honor, sincerity and justice. His chief study and greatest boast are to be impenetrable; that no man shall be able to discover what he designs; that, though you discourse with him for ever, he shall constantly elude your detection. Consummate in his art, he will often practice it without excuse or necessity. Thus history records her instances of the profuse kindness and endearment with which monarchs have treated those they had already resolved to destroy. A gratuitous pride seems to have been placed in exhibiting the last refinement of profligacy and deceit. Ministers of this character are the mortal enemies of virtue in others. A cabal of such courtiers is in the utmost degree deadly. They destroy by secret ways that give no warning, and leave no trace. If they have to do with a blunt, just man who knows no disguise, or a generous spirit that scorns to practice dissimulation and artifice, they mark him their certain victim. No good or liberal character can escape their machinations; and the immorality of the court, which throws into shade all other wickedness, spreads its contagion through the land, and emasculates the sentiments of the most populous nation.
A fundamental disadvantage in monarchical 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 office, 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 hereditary 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 constant struggle between the genuine sentiments of the understanding, which tell 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 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, ribands 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 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 favor 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 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 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 the 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 too favorably 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, 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 old government of France? The eye of the tyrant is never dosed. 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. 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 the only instrument employed for these purposes. 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 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 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 cloak of vises, which are only the more humiliating the more they are concealed.
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