Proofs of a Conspiracy, by John Robison 1798

Nor is our House of Commons at all similar to the Third Estate of any of the neighbouring kingdoms. They are not the representatives of the ignobly born, or of any class of citizens. The members are the proper representatives of the whole nation, and consist of persons of every class, persons of the highest birth, persons of great fortune, persons of education, of knowledge, of talents.

Thus the causes of dissension which refer to the distinctive rights or prerogatives of the different classes of citizens are removed, because in each House there are many individuals selected from all the classes.

A Peer, having attained the highest honors of the state, must be an enemy to every revolution. Revolution must certainly degrade him, whether it places an absolute monarch, or a democratic junto, on the throne.

The Sovereign naturally looks for the support of the Upper House, and in every measure agreeable to the constitution, and to the public weal, exerts his influence on the House of Commons. Here the character of the monarch and his choice of ministers must appear, as in any other constitution; but with much less chance of danger to political liberty.–The great engine of monarchy in Europe, has been the jarring privileges of the different Orders; and the Sovereign, by siding with one of them, obtained accessions of prerogative and power.–It was thus that, under the House of Tudor, our constitution advanced with hasty strides to absolute monarchy; and would have attained it, had James the First been as able as he was willing to secure what he firmly believed to be the divine rights of his Crown.

I do not recollect hearing the lower ranks of the State venting much of their discontents against the Peers, and they seem to perceive pretty clearly the advantages arising from their prerogatives. They seem to look up to them as the first who will protect them against the agents of sovereignty. They know that a man may rise from the lowest station to the peerage, and that in that exaltation he remains connected with themselves by the dearest ties; and the House of Commons take no offence at the creation of new Peers, because their privileges as a Court, and their private rights, are not affected by it. Accordingly, the House has always opposed every project of limiting the King’s prerogative in this respect.

How unlike is all this to the constitution consisting of the pure representatives of the Privileged Orders of the Continental States. The self-conceited constitutionalists of France saw something in the British Parliament which did not fall in with their own hasty notions, and prided themselves in not copying from us. This would have indicated great poverty of invention in a nation accustomed to consider itself as the teacher of mankind. The most sensible of them, however, wished to have a constitution which they called an improvement of ours: and this was the simple plan of a representation of the two or three Orders of the State. Their Upper House should contain the representatives of 100,000 noblesse. The Princes of the Blood and Great Barons should sit in it of their own right, and the rest by deputies. The Lower House, or Tiers Etat, should consist of deputies from those ignobly born; such as merchants, persons in the lower offices of the law, artisans, peasants, and a small number of freeholders. Surely it needs no deep reflection to teach us what sort of deliberations would occupy such a house. It would be a most useful occupation however, to peruse the history of France, and of other nations, and see what really did occupy the Tiers Etat thus constructed, and what were their proceedings, their decisions, and the steps which they took to make them effectual. I have no doubt but that this study would cure most of our advocates for general eligibility, and for general suffrage. I have lately read Velley and Villaret’s History of France (by the bye, the Abbe Barruel has shewn that the Club d’Holbach managed the publication of this History after the first eight or ten volumes, and slipped into it many things suited to their impious project) and the accounts of the troublesome reigns of John, and Charles his successor, by authors who wrote long before the Revolution; and they filled me with horror. The only instance that I met with of any thing like moderation in the claims and disputes of the different Orders of their States General, and of patriotism, or regard for the general interests of the State, is in their meetings during the minority of Charles VIII.

With respect to the limitations of the eligibility into the House of Commons, I think that there can be no doubt that those should be excluded whose habits of needy and laborious life have precluded them from all opportunities of acquiring some general views of political relations. Such persons are totally unfit for deliberations, where general or comprehensive views only are to be the subjects of discussion; they can have no conceptions of the subject, and therefore no steady notions or opinions, but must change them after every speaker, and must become the dupes of every demagogue.

But there are other circumstances which make me think that, of all the classes of citizens, the land proprietors are the fittest for holding this important office. I do not infer this from their having a more real connection with the nation, and a stronger interest in its fate–I prefer them on account of their general habits of thought. Almost all their ordinary transactions are such as make them acquainted with the interests of others, cause them to consider those in general points of view; and, in short, most of their occupations are, in some degree, national. They are accustomed to settle differences between those of lower stations–they are frequently in the King’s commission as Justices of the Peace. All these circumstances make them much apter scholars in that political knowledge, which is absolutely necessary for a member of the House of Commons. But, besides this, I have no hesitation in saying that their turn of mind, their principles of conduct, are more generally such as become a Senator, than those of any other class of men. This class includes almost all men of family. I cannot help thinking that even what is called family pride is a sentiment in their favor. I am convinced that all our propensities are useful in society, and that their bad effects arise wholly from want of moderation in the indulgence of them, or sometimes from the impropiety of the occasion on which they are exerted. What propensity is more general than the desire of acquiring permanent consideration for ourselves and our families? Where is the man to be found so mean-spirited as not to value himself for being born of creditable parents, and for creditable domestic connections? Is this wrong because it has been abused? So then is every preeminence of office; and the directors of republican France are as criminal as her former Nobles. This propensity of the human heart should no more be rejected than the desire of power. It should be regulated–but it should certainly be made use of as one of the means of carrying on the national business. I think that we know some of its good effects–It incites to a certain propriety of conduct that is generally agreeable–its honesty is embellished by a manner that makes it more pleasing. There is something that we call the behaviour of a Gentleman that is immediately and uniformly understood. The plainest peasant or labourer will say of a man whom he esteems in a certain way, “He is a Gentleman, every bit of him”–and he is perfectly understood by all who hear him to mean, not a rank in life, but a turn of mind, a tenor of conduct that is amiable and worthy, and the ground of confidence.–I remark, with some feeling of patriotic pride, that these are phrases almost peculiar to our language–in Russia the words would have no meaning. But there, the Sovereign is a despot, and all but the Gentry are slaves; and the Gentry are at no pains to recommend their class by such a distinction, nor to give currency to such a phrase.–I would infer from this peculiarity, that Britain is the happy land, where the wisest use has been made of this propensity of the human heart.

If therefore there be a foundation for this peculiarity, the Gentry are proper objects of our choice for filling the House of Commons.

If theoretical considerations are of any value in questions of political discussion, I would say, that we have good reasons for giving this class of citizens a great share in the public deliberations. Besides what I have already noticed of their habits of considering things in general points of view, and their feeling a closer connection with the nation than any other class, I would say that the power and influence which naturally attach to their being called to offices of public trust, will probably be better lodged in their hands. If they are generally selected for these offices, they come to consider them as parts of their civil condition, as situations natural to them. They will therefore exercise this power and influence with the moderation and calmness of habit–they are no novelties to them–they are not afraid of losing them;–therefore, when in office, they do not catch at the opportunities of exercising them. This is the ordinary conduct of men, and therefore is a ground of probable reasoning.–In short, I should expect from our Gentry somewhat of generosity and candour, which would temper the commercial principle, which seems to regulate the national transactions of modern Europe, and whose effects seem less friendly to the best interest of humanity, than even the Roman principle of glory.

The Reader will now believe that I would not recommend the filling the House of Commons with merchants, although they seem to be the natural Representatives of the monied interest of the nation. But I do not wish to consider that House as the Representative of any Orders whatever, or to disturb its deliberations with any debates on their jarring interests. The man of purely commercial notions disclaims all generosity–recommends honesty because it is the best policy–in short, “places the value of a thing in as much money as ’twill bring.” 1 should watch the conduct of such men more narrowly than that of the Nobles. Indeed, the history of Parliament will show that the Gentry have not been the most venal part of the House. The Illumination which now dazzles the world aims directly at multiplying the number of venal members, by filling the senates of Europe with men who may be bought at a low price. Ministerial corruption is the fruit of Liberty, and freedom dawned in this nation in Queen Elizabeth’s time, when her minister bribed Wentworth.–A wise and free Legislation will endeavour to make this as expensive and troublesome as possible, and therefore will neither admit universal suffrage nor a very extensive eligibility. These two circumstances, besides opening a wider door to corruption, tend to destroy the very intention of all civil constitutions. The great object in them is, to make a great number of people happy. Some men place their chief enjoyment in measuring their strength with others, and love to be continually employed in canvassing, intriguing, and carrying on some little pieces of a sort of public business; to such men universal suffrage and eligibility would be paradise–but it is to be hoped that the number of such is not very great: for this occupation must be accompanied by much disquiet among their neighbours, much dissension, and mutual offence and ill-will–and the peaceable, the indolent, the studious, and the half of the nation, the women, will be great sufferers by all this. In a nation possessing many of the comforts and pleasures of life, the happiest government is that which will leave the greatest number possible totally unoccupied with national affairs, and at full liberty to enjoy all their domestic and social pleasures, and to do this with security and permanency. Great limitations in the right of electing seems therefore a circumstance necessary for this purpose; and limitations are equally necessary on the eligibility. When the offices of power and emolument are open to all, the scramble becomes universal, and the nation is never at peace. The road to a seat in Parliament should be accessible to all; but it should be long, so that many things, which all may in time obtain, shall be requisite for qualifying the candidate. The road should also be such that all should be induced to walk in it, in the prosecution of their ordinary business; and their admission into public offices should depend on the progress which they have made in the advancement of their own fortunes. Such regulations would, I think, give the greatest chance of filling the offices with persons fittest for them, by their talents, their experience, and their habits of thinking. These habits, and the views of life which a man forms in consequence of his situation, are of the utmost importance.

After all these observations, I must still recur to a position which I have repeated more than once, namely, that our constitution, which nearly embraces all these circumstances, has attained its present excellence chiefly in consequence of the innate worth of the British character. About the time of the Conquest, our constitution hardly differed from that of France. But the clashing of interests between the different Orders of the subjects was not so rancorous and obstinate–these Orders melted more easily together–the purity of the principle of Representation in the States was less attended to; and while the French Peers gradually left off minding any business but their own, and left the High Court of Judicature to the lawyers, and the King to his Cabinet Council, the Peers of Great Britain, overlooking their own less important distinctions, attended more to the State, became a permanent Council to the Sovereign in the administration and legislation; and, with a patriotism and a patience that are unknown to the other Grandees of Europe, continued to hear and to judge in all questions of justice and property between the inferior citizens of the State. British Liberty is the highly-prized fruit of all this worthy conduct, and most people ascribe it to the superior spirit and independence of the national character. It strikes me, however, as more surely indicating superior virtue, and more judicious patriotism; and our happy constitution is not more justly entitled to the admiration and respect that is paid to it by all Europe, than to the affectionate and grateful attachment of every true-hearted Briton.

Since the publication of this volume I have seen a very remarkable work indeed, on the same subject, Memoires pour servir a l’Histoire du Jacobinisme, par M. l’Abbe Barruel. This author confirms all that I have said of the Enlighteners, whom he very aptly calls Philosophists; and of the abuses of Free Masonry in France. He shows, unquestionably, that a formal and systematic conspiracy against Religion was formed and zealously prosecuted by Voltaire, d’Alembert, and Diderot, assisted by Frederic II. King of Prussia; and I see that their principles and their manner of procedure have been the same with those of the German atheists and anarchists. Like them they hired an Army of Writers; they industriously pushed their writings into every house and every cottage. Those writings were equally calculated for inflaming the sensual appetites of men, and for perverting their judgments. They endeavoured to get the command of the Schools, particularly those for the lower classes; and they erected and managed a prodigious number of Circulating Libraries and Reading Societies. M. Barruel says, that this gang of public corruptors have held their meetings for many years in the Hotel de Holbach at Paris, and that Voltaire was their honorary President. The most eminent members were d’Alembert, Diderot, Condorcet, La Harpe, Turgot, Lamoignon. They took the name of OeCONOMISTS, and affected to be continually occupied with plans for improving Commerce, Manufactures, Agriculture, Finance, &c. and published from time to time respectable performances on those subjects.——But their darling project was to destroy Christianity and all Religion, and to bring about a total change of Government. They employed writers to compose corrupting and impious books–these were revised by the Society, and corrected till they suited their purpose. A number were printed in a handsome manner, to defray the expence; and then a much greater number were printed in the cheapest form possible, and given for nothing, or at very low prices, to hawkers and pedlars, with injunctions to distribute them secretly through the cities and villages. They even hired persons to read them to conventicles of those who had not learned to read. [**] (See vol. i. 343-355.)

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Methinks I am a conspiracy theorist. Art thou? Thou block, thou stone, thou worse than senseless thing, for whilst thou slept didst this become a badge of honor. Informed dissent shall always prevail, wherefore art thou worthy, or art thou this unwholesome fool in the group conformity experiment herein?

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