Letter 5. Parallel Characteristics of Englishmen

{331} I HOPE I have now made it clear, that, in saying that a free State will not be strong, I am far indeed from saying that a People with what is called a free Constitution will not be active, powerful, influential, and successful. I am only saying that it will do its great deeds, not through the medium of its government, or politically, but through the medium of its individual members, or nationally. Self-government, which is another name for political weakness, may really be the means or the token of national greatness. Athens, as a State, was wanting in the elements of integrity, firmness, and consistency; but perhaps that political deficiency was the very condition and a result of her intellectual activity.

I will allow more than this readily. Not only in cases such as that of Athens, is the State's loss the Nation's gain, but further, most of those very functions which in despotisms are undertaken by the State may be performed in free countries by the Nation. For instance, roads, the posts, railways, bridges, aqueducts, and the like, in absolute monarchies, are governmental matters; but they may be left to private energy, where self-government prevails. Letter-carriage indeed involves an extent of system and a punctuality in work, which is too much for any combination of individuals; but the care of Religion, which is a governmental work in Russia, and partly so in England, is left to private competition {332} in the United States. Education, in like manner, is sometimes provided by the State, sometimes left to religious denominations, sometimes to private zeal and charity. The Fine Arts sometimes depend on the patronage of Court or Government; sometimes are given in charge to Academies; sometimes to committees or vestries.

I do not say that a Nation will manage all these departments equally well, or so well as a despotic government; and some departments it will not be able to manage at all. Did I think it could manage all, I should have nothing to write about. I am distinctly maintaining that the war department it cannot manage; that is my very point. It cannot conduct a war; but not from any fault in the nation, or with any resulting disparagement to popular governments and Constitutional States, but merely because we cannot have all things at once in this world, however big we are, and because, in the nature of things, one thing cannot be another. I do not say that a Constitutional State never must risk war, never must engage in war, never will conquer in war; but that its strong point lies in the other direction. If we would see what liberty, independence, self-government, a popular Constitution, can do, we must look to times of tranquillity. In peace a self-governing nation is prosperous in itself, and influential in the wide world. Its special works, the sciences, the useful arts, literature, the interests of knowledge generally, material comfort, the means and appliances of a happy life, thrive especially in peace. And thus such a nation spreads abroad, and subdues the world, and reigns in the admiration and gratitude and deference of men, by the use of weapons which war shivers to pieces. Alas! that mortals do not know themselves, and will not (according {333} to the proverb) cut their coat according to their cloth! "Optat ephippia bos." John Bull, like other free, self-governing nations, would undertake a little war just now, as if it were his forte,—as great lawyers have cared for nothing but a reputation for dancing gracefully, and literary men have bought a complex coat-of-arms at the Heralds' College. Why will we not content to be human? why not content with the well-grounded consciousness that no polity in the world is so wonderful, so good to its subjects, so favourable to individual energy, so pleasant to live under, as our own? I do not say, why will we go to war? but, why will we not think twice first? why do we not ascertain our actual position, our strength, our weakness, before we do so?

For centuries upon centuries England has been, like Attica, a secluded land; so remote from the highway of the world, so protected from the flood of Eastern and Northern barbarism, that her children have grown into a magnanimous contempt of external danger. They have had "a cheap defence" in the stormy sea which surrounds them; and, from time immemorial, they have had such skill in weathering it, that their wooden walls, to use the Athenian term, became a second rampart against the foe, whom wind and water did not overwhelm. So secure have they felt in those defences, that they have habitually neglected others; so that, in spite of their valour, when a foe once gained the shore, be he Dane, or Norman, or Dutch, he was encountered by no sustained action or organized resistance, and became their king. These, however, were rare occurrences, and made no lasting impression; they were not sufficient to divert them from pursuing, or to thwart them in attaining, the amplest measures of liberty. Whom had the people to fear? not even their ships, which could not, {334} like military, become a paid force encircling a tyrant, and securing him against their resistance.

To these outward circumstances of England, determining the direction of its political growth, must be added the character of the people themselves. There are races to whom consanguinity itself is not concord and unanimity, but the reverse. They fight with each other, for lack of better company. Imaginative, fierce, vindictive, with their clans, their pedigrees, and their feuds, snorting war, spurning trade or tillage, the old Highlanders, if placed on the broad plains of England, would have in time run through their national existence, and died the death of the sons of Œdipus. But, if you wish to see the sketch of a veritable Englishman in strong relief, refresh your recollection of Walter Scott's "Two Drovers." He is indeed rough, surly, a bully and a bigot; these are his weak points: but if ever there was a generous, good, tender heart, it beats within his breast. Most placable, he forgives and forgets: forgets, not only the wrongs he has received, but the insults he has inflicted. Such he is commonly; for doubtless there are times and circumstances in his dealings with foreigners in which, whether when in despair or from pride, he becomes truculent and simply hateful; but at home his bark is worse than his bite. He has qualities, excellent for the purposes of neighbourhood and intercourse;—and he has, besides, a shrewd sense, and a sobriety of judgment, and a practical logic, which passion does not cloud, and which makes him understand that good-fellowship is not only commendable, but expedient too. And he has within him a spring of energy, pertenacity, and perseverance, which makes him as busy and effective in a colony as he is companionable at home. Some races do not move at all; others are ever jostling {335} against each other; the Englishman is ever stirring, yet never treads too hard upon his fellow-countryman's toes. He does his work neatly, silently, in his own place; he looks to himself, and can take care of himself; and he has that instinctive veneration for the law, that he can worship it even in the abstract, and thus is fitted to go shares with others all around him in that political sovereignity, which other races are obliged to concentrate in one ruler.

There was a time when England was divided into seven principalities, formed out of the wild warriors whom the elder race had called in to their own extermination. What would have been the history of those kingdoms if the invaders had been Highlanders instead of Saxons? But the Saxon Heptarchy went on, without any very desperate wars of kingdom with kingdom, pretty much as the nation goes on now. Indeed, I much question, supposing Englishmen rose one morning and found themselves in a Heptarchy again, whether its seven portions would not jog on together, much as they do now under Queen Victoria, the union in both cases depending, not so much on the government and the governed, but on the people, viewed in themselves, to whom peaceableness, justice, and non-interference are natural.

It is an invaluable national quality to be keen, yet to be fair to others; to be inquisitive, acquisitive, enterprising, aspiring, progressive, without encroaching upon his next neighbour's right to be the same. Such a people hardly need a Ruler, as being mainly free from the infirmities which make a ruler necessary. Law, like medicine, is only called for to assist nature; and, when nature does so much for a people, the wisest policy is, as far as possible, to leave them to themselves. This, {336} then, is the science of government with English Statesmen, to leave the people alone; a free action, a clear stage, and they will do the rest for themselves. The more a Ruler meddles, the less he succeeds; the less he initiates, the more he accomplishes; his duty is that of overseeing, facilitating, encouraging, guiding, interposing on emergencies. Some races are like children, and require a despot to nurse, and feed, and dress them, to give them pocket money, and take them out for airings. Others, more manly, prefer to be rid of the trouble of their affairs, and use their Ruler as their mere manager and man of business. Now an Englishman likes to take his own matters into his own hands. He stands on his own ground, and does as much work as half a dozen men of certain other races. He can join too with others, and has a turn for organizing, but he insists on its being voluntary. He is jealous of no one, except kings and governments, and offensive to no one except their partisans and creatures.

This, then, is the people for private enterprise; and of private enterprise alone have I been speaking all along. What a place is London in its extent, its complexity, its myriads of dwellings, its subterraneous works! It is the production, for the most part, of individual enterprise. Waterloo Bridge was the greatest architectural achievement of the generation before this; it was built by shares. New regions, with streets of palaces and shops innumerable, each shop a sort of shrine or temple of this or that trade, and each a treasure-house of its own merchandize, grow silently into existence, the creation of private spirit and speculation. The gigantic system of railroads rises and asks for its legal status: prudent statesmen decide that it must be left to private companies, to the exclusion of Government. Trade is to {337} be encouraged: the best encouragement is, that it should be free. A famine threatens; one thing must be avoided,—any meddling on the part of Government with the export and import of provisions.

Emigration is in vogue: out go swarms of colonists, not, as in ancient times, from the Prytaneum, under State guidance and with religious rites, but each by himself, and at his own arbitrary and sudden will. The ship is wrecked; the passengers are cast upon a rock,—or make the hazard of a raft. In the extremest peril, in the most delicate and most anxious of operations, every one seems to find his place, as if by magic, and does his work, and subserves the rest with coolness, cheerfulness, gentleness, and without a master. Or they have a fair passage, and gain their new country; each takes his allotted place there, and works in it in his own way. Each acts irrespectively of the rest, takes care of number one, with a kind word and deed for his neighbour, but still as fully understanding that he must depend for his own welfare on himself. Pass a few years, and a town has risen on the desert beach, and houses of business are extending their connexions and influence up the country. At length, a company of merchants make the place their homestead, and they protect themselves from their enemies with a fort. They need a better defence than they have provided, for a numerous host is advancing upon them, and they are likely to be driven into the sea. Suddenly a youth, the castaway of his family, half-clerk, half-soldier, puts himself at the head of a few troops, defends posts, gains battles, and ends in founding a mighty empire over the graves of Mahmood and Aurungzebe.

It is the deed of one man; and so, wherever we go all over the earth, it is the solitary Briton, the London {338} agent, or the Milordos, who is walking restlessly about, abusing the natives, and raising a colossus, or setting the Thames on fire, in the East or the West. He is on the top of the Andes, or in a diving-bell in the Pacific, or taking notes at Timbuctoo, or grubbing at the Pyramids, or scouring over the Pampas, or acting as prime minister to the king of Dahomey, or smoking the pipe of friendship with the Red Indians, or hutting at the Pole. No one can say beforehand what will come of these various specimens of the independent, self-governing, self-reliant Englishman. Sometimes failure, sometimes openings for trade, scientific discoveries, or political aggrandizements. His country and his government have the gain; but it is he who is the instrument of it, and not political organization, centralization, systematic plans, authoritative acts. The polity of England is what it was before,—the Government weak, the Nation strong,—strong in the strength of its multitudinous enterprise, which gives to its Government a position in the world, which that Government could not claim for itself by any prowess or device of its own.

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