No. II.


Thoughts on Civil Liberty


The ingenious author of “An Enquiry into the Nature of Subscription,” has observed in a note affixed to his elegant address to Freedom[*], “that the most [11] sensible females, when they turn their attention to political subjects, are more uniformly on the side of liberty, than the other sex.” In proof of which he celebrates the respectable names of Macaulay, Wollstonecraft, Barbauld, Jebb, Williams, and Smith. This predeliction he says, “may be accounted for without adopting the sentiments or the language of gallantry. The truth is, the modes of education, and the customs of society are degrading to the female character, and the tyranny of custom is sometimes worse than the tyranny of government. When a sensible woman rises above the tyranny of custom she feels a generous indignation; which when turned against the exclusive claims of the other sex, is favourable to female pretensions; when turned against the tyranny of government, it is commonly favourable to the rights of both sexes. Most governments are partial, and more injurious to women than to men.”

It may likewise be added, that as women have no claims to expect either pension or [12] place, they are less in the vortex of influence; they are also more unsophisticated by education, having neither system, test, or subscription imposed upon them; and some subjects require only to be examined with an impartial and unprejudiced eye, to ensure conviction. _ Without pretending to any profound knowledge of the arcana of politics, every thinking mind must be struck with the exorbitant taxation which is thought necessary to defray the expenses of certain establishments both in church and state. By what infatuation and magic so many hug their chains and bow down before the idol in power, at first view appears inconceivable; but when the progress of corruption is traced, and the force of habit acknowledged, our wonder ceases. “The most necessary part of learning (said one of the Grecian philosophers) is to unlearn our errors;” and a conviction of the truth of the doctrine of association compels us to add, it is also the most difficult. Novel truths, or rather truths represented in a new point of view, operate most forcibly on the rising generation, where the memory is not [13] preoccupied. It needs little of the spirit of prophecy, to predict that the present just and liberal notions on the subject of civil government, which like a flood of light irradiate Europe, will in future periods produce certain, though slow effects; the feeble efforts of prejudice and interest must in the end give way to truth, however gradual may be their declining struggles.

Look back through the history of the world, from its golden days of infancy and innocence, to the maturity of the present times, and you will discern various truths, first dawning like the fun through a misty horizon, and after encountering many dark clouds of error and opposition, at length beaming forth in meridian brightness; thus gently and gradually diffusing light and happiness, left our weak faculties should have been overpowered with the sudden splendour. Our nature is progressive, and every thing around us is the same. Wife and benevolent plan! for “happiness (truly observes Epicurus) resembles neither a standing pool, nor a rapid torrent, but is [14] like a gentle stream that glides smoothly and silently along.” And surely legislation, in which the peace and the virtue of millions are concerned, cannot be the only subject that admits of no improvement. [†] In different communities different laws are instituted, according to the circumstances of the people who enact them. Whatever is thus prescribed should be a rule of justice, so long as the society shall judge the observance of it to be for the benefit of the whole; but when this is found upon experience not to be the case, being no longer useful, it should be no longer prescribed.”

I love peace, and am one of those who “faint when they do look on blood.” And most devoutly do I pray that a wise and peaceful reformation of the gross corruptions and abuses which deform the present system of government in this country, may preclude all dreadful extremities; to say nothing of the justice of such measures, sound policy [15] requires them; for the historic page has invariably attested the vanity of fines, proscriptions, proclamations, and prohibitions, to arrest the progress of the human mind. In passing through the streets of this great metropolis, a humane heart must shudder at the glaring proofs of profligacy and vice, which continually obtrude themselves both on the eye and ear; nor will it be unjust to charge these in a great measure on legislation. If there be proper laws existing to prevent these shocking depravities, so destructive to the morals, to the population, to the well-being of a country –Say! why, are they not enforced? Blush ye princes and nobles of the land, if ye have not yet entirely lost the complexion of virtue! for yours is the contagious example, that with pestilential influence pervades all society. A race of men “born only to consume the fruits of the earth,” and set on high for others to maintain by the sweat of their brow, must necessarily be corrupt; for idleness engenders every evil: and how few comparatively are there who know how to spend leisure well! “The ranks of society [16] arose from the vices and follies of mankind, and are therefore to be despised,” said an ancient sage. And they are most certainly calculated to perpetuate the crimes and frivolity from whence they sprung. 

I have paid very little attention to the venal politics of the day, as conceiving they merited but little. But a benevolent mind cannot view with indifference its fellow creatures sinking into depravation and consequent misery. Plain general principles are obvious to every one who stops to reflect. I should shrink from the idea of a revolution, for I want sufficient courage to claim the crown of martyrdom (and those who suffer in endeavouring to benefit others, whatever be the cause, are unquestionably martyrs) and I again earnestly repeat the wish, that the wisdom of the legislature may keep pace with the national light. The emancipated mind is impatient of imposition, nor can it, in a retrograde course, unlearn what it has learned, or unknow what it has known.

[17] It appears to me that all monarchical, and aristocratical governments, carry within themselves the feeds of their dissolution; for when they become corrupt, and oppressive to a certain degree, the effects must necessarily be murmurs, remonstrances, and revolt. I almost shudder at the present general diffusion of political knowledge; for however I approve the principles, the desolations in a neighbouring country, make me tremble at the very idea of the dangers (from the opposition of jarring interests) attending the practice. Posterity will, I have no doubt, reap the benefit of the present struggles in France, but they are ruinous and dreadful to those actually engaged in them. How will the page of history (while it records the noble efforts – “Inspiring glory through remotest time.”)

Be clouded and stained with sanguinary details; and how complicated, how affecting, must be the scenes of private calamity![‡]And though very far from being a [18] wellwisher to their cause, yet, as individuals, I must commiserate the sufferings of the late reigning family. Great allowances ought to be made for early prejudices, and associations, and for the peculiar temptations attending peculiar situations; neither can their former luxury, and security, by any means have fitted their minds to encounter with firmness the terrible reverse; the flattery and prosperity attendant upon high station, enervate the mind, and deprive it of its natural strength; steadiness and fortitude are the hard offspring of adversity. A little reflection on the structure of the human understanding, on the force of habit, the allurements of power, and the influence of external circumstances would tend to mitigate the severity of our censures, and soften the stern inflexibility of justice with the tear of sympathy. 

[19] The body politic of Europe in general, seems at present like the body natural; when struggling to expel offensive and morbid humours; the convulsive efforts threaten more immediate danger than even the lurking mischief, and there is reason to dread left the patient expire under the operation of the powerful remedy. The great and good Dr. Hartley, speaking of the torrent of vice and impiety that over-runs every state in Christendom, and which seems increasing, and likely still to increase from time to time, observes, that “it can scarce be doubted by a considerate man, whether he be a religious one or no, but the licentiousness will, sooner or later, bring on a total dissolution of all the forms of government, that subsist at present in the Christian countries of Europe.”

 


[*]See Poems, by G. Dyer, B. A. Page 36.

[†]Enfield’s History of Philosophy.

[‡]The above observations were written while the public mind was agitated with the account of the massacres and popular insurrections in Paris, the mere temporary effervescence of spirits heated by the enthusiasm of the moment, and irritated by treachery and cruelty. In a generous and enlightened nation, such disorders must necessarily be transient; and it would be equally as absurd as unjust, to charge them upon principles to which they are utterly repugnant.