Letter 2. States and Constitutions

{311} THE proposition I have undertaken to maintain is this:—That the British Constitution is made for a state of peace, and not for a state of war; and that war tries it in the same way, to use a homely illustration, that it tries a spoon to use it for a knife, or a scythe or hay-fork to make it do the work of a spade. I expressed myself thus generally, in order to give to those who should do me the honour of reading me the most expeditious insight into the view which I wished to set before them. But, if I must speak accurately, my meaning is this,—that, whereas a Nation has two aspects, internal and external, one as regards its own members, and one as regards foreigners, and whereas its government has two duties, one towards its subjects, and one towards its allies or enemies, the British State is great in its home department, which is its primary object, foreign affairs being its secondary; while France or Russia, Prussia or Austria, contemplates in the first place foreign affairs, and is great in their management, and makes the home department only its second object. And further, that, if England be great abroad, as she is, it is not so much the State, as the People or Nation, which is the cause of her greatness, and that not by means but in spite of the Constitution, or, if by means of it in any measure, clumsily so and circuitously; on the other hand, that, if foreign powers are ever great in the management of their own people, {312} and make men of them, this they do in spite of their polity, and rather by the accidental qualifications of the individual ruler; or if by their polity, still with inconvenience and effort. Other explanations I may add to the above as I proceed, but this is sufficient for the present.

Now I hope you will have patience with me, if I begin by setting down what I mean by a State, and by a Constitution.

First of all, it is plain that every one has a power of his own to act this way or that, as he pleases. And, as not one or two, but every one has it, it is equally plain, that, if all exercised it to the full, at least the stronger part of mankind would always be in conflict with each other, and no one would enjoy the benefit of it; so that it is the interest of every one to give up some portion of his birth-freedom in this or that direction, in order to secure more freedom on the whole; exchanging a freedom which is now large and now narrow, according as the accidents of his conflicts with others are more or less favourable to himself, for a certain definite range of freedom prescribed and guaranteed by settled engagements or laws. In other words, Society is necessary for the well-being of human nature. The result, aimed at and effected by these mutual arrangements, is called a State or Standing; that is, in contrast with the appearance presented by a people before and apart from such arrangements, which is not a standing, but a chronic condition of commotion and disorder.

And next, as this State or settlement of a people, is brought about by mutual arrangements, that is, by laws or rules, there is need, from the nature of the case, of some power over and above the People itself to maintain and enforce them. This living guardian of the laws is {313} called the Government, and a governing power is thus involved in the very notion of Society. Let the Government be suspended, and at once the State is threatened with dissolution, which at best is only a matter of time.

A lively illustration in point is furnished us by a classical historian. When the great Assyrian Empire broke up, a time of anarchy succeeded; and, little as its late subjects liked its sway, they liked its absence less. The historian thus proceeds: "There was a wise man among the Medes, called Deioces. This Deioces, aspiring to be tyrant, did thus. He was already a man of reputation in his own country, and he now, more than ever, practised justice. The Medes, accordingly, in his neighbourhood, seeing his ways, made him their umpire in disputes. He, on the other hand, having empire in his eye, was upright and just. As he proceeded thus, the dwellers in other towns, who had suffered from unjust decisions, were glad to go to him and to plead their causes, till at length they went to no one else. Deioces now had the matter in his own hands. Accordingly he would no longer proceed to the judgment-seat; for it was not worth his while, he said, to neglect his private affairs for the sake of the affairs of others. When rapine and lawlessness returned, his friends said, 'We must appoint a king over us;' and then they debated who it should be, and Deioces was praised by every one. So they made him their king; and he, upon this, bade them to build him a house worthy of his kingly power, and protect him with guards; and the Medes did so."

Now I have quoted this passage from history, because it carries us a step further in our investigation. It is for the good of the many that the one man, Deioces, is set up; but who is to keep him in his proper work? He puts down all little tyrants, but {314} what is to hinder his becoming a greater tyrant than them all? This was actually the case; first the Assyrian tyranny, then anarchy, then the tyranny of Deioces. Thus the unfortunate masses oscillate between two opposite evils,—that of having no governor, and that of having too much of one; and which is the lesser of the two? This was the dilemma which beset the Horse in the fable. He was in feud with the Stag, by whose horns he was driven from his pasture. The Man promised him an easy victory, if he would let him mount him. On his assenting, the Man bridled him, and vaulted on him, and pursued and killed his enemy; but, this done, he would not get off him. Now, then, the Horse was even worse off than before, because he had a master to serve, instead of a foe to combat.

Here then is the problem: the social state is necessary for man, but it seems to contain in itself the elements of its own undoing. It requires a power to enforce the laws, and to rule the unruly; but what law is to control that power, and to rule the ruler? According to the common adage, "Quis custodiat ipsos custodes?" Who is to hinder the governor dispensing with the law in his own favour? History shows us that this problem is as ordinary as it is perplexing.

The expedient, by which the State is kept in statu and its ruler is ruled, is called its Constitution; and this has next to be explained. Now a Constitution really is not a mere code of laws, as is plain at once; for the very problem is how to confine power within the law, and in order to the maintenance of law. The ruling power can, and may, overturn law and law-makers, as Cromwell did, by the same sword with which he protects them. Acts of Parliament, Magna Charta, the Bill of Rights, the Reform Bill, none of these are the British Constitution. {315} What then is conveyed in that word? I would answer as follows:—

As individuals have characters of their own, so have races. Most men have their strong and their weak points, and points neither good nor bad, but idiosyncratic. And so of races: one is brave and sensitive of its honour; another romantic; another industrious, or long-headed, or religious. One is barbarous, another civilized. Moreover, growing out of these varieties or idiosyncrasies, and corresponding to them, will be found in these several races, and proper to each, a certain assemblage of beliefs, convictions, rules, usages, traditions, proverbs, and principles; some political, some social, some moral; and these tending to some definite form of government and modus vivendi, or polity, as their natural scope. And this being the case, when a given race has that polity which is intended for it by nature, it is in the same state of repose and contentment which an individual enjoys who has the food, or the comforts, the stimulants, sedatives, or restoratives, which are suited to his diathesis and his need. This then is the Constitution of a State: securing, as it does, the national unity by at once strengthening and controlling its governing power. It is something more than law; it is the embodiment of special ideas, ideas perhaps which have been held by a race for ages, which are of immemorial usage, which have fixed themselves in its innermost heart, which are in its eyes sacred to it, and have practically the force of eternal truths, whether they be such or not. These ideas are sometimes trivial, and, at first sight, even absurd: sometimes they are superstitious, sometimes they are great or beautiful; but to those to whom they belong they are first principles, watchwords, common property, natural ties, a cause to fight for, an occasion of self-sacrifice. They are the expressions {316} of some or other sentiment,—of loyalty, of order, of duty, of honour, of faith, of justice, of glory. They are the creative and conservative influences of Society; they erect nations into States, and invest States with Constitutions. They inspire and sway, as well as restrain, the ruler of a people, for he himself is but one of that people to which they belong.

Top | Contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.