1. THAT THE GENERAL WILL IS INDESTRUCTIBLE
AS long as several men
in assembly regard themselves as a single body, they have only a single
will which is concerned with their common preservation and general
well-being. In this case, all the springs of the State are vigorous and
simple and its rules clear and luminous; there are no embroilments or
conflicts of interests; the common good is everywhere clearly apparent,
and only good sense is needed to perceive it. Peace, unity and equality
are the enemies of political subtleties. Men who are upright and simple
are difficult to deceive because of their simplicity; lures and ingenious
pretexts fail to impose upon them, and they are not even subtle enough to
be dupes. When, among the happiest people in the world, bands of peasants
are seen regulating affairs of State under an oak, and always acting
wisely, can we help scorning the ingenious methods of other nations, which
make themselves illustrious and wretched with so much art and mystery?
A State so governed needs very few laws; and, as it becomes necessary to
issue new ones, the necessity is universally seen. The first man to
propose them merely says what all have already felt, and there is no
question of factions or intrigues or eloquence in order to secure the
passage into law of what every one has already decided to do, as soon as
he is sure that the rest will act with him.
Theorists are led into error because, seeing only States that have been
from the beginning wrongly constituted, they are struck by the
impossibility of applying such a policy to them. They make great game of
all the absurdities a clever rascal or an insinuating speaker might get
the people of Paris or London to believe. They do not know that Cromwell
would have been put to "the bells" by the people of Berne, and
the Duc de Beaufort on the treadmill by the Genevese.
But when the social bond begins to be relaxed and the State to grow
weak, when particular interests begin to make themselves felt and the
smaller societies to exercise an influence over the larger, the common
interest changes and finds opponents: opinion is no longer unanimous; the
general will ceases to be the will of all; contradictory views and debates
arise; and the best advice is not taken without question.
Finally, when the State, on the eve of ruin, maintains only a vain,
illusory and formal existence, when in every heart the social bond is
broken, and the meanest interest brazenly lays hold of the sacred name of
"public good," the general will becomes mute: all men, guided by
secret motives, no more give their views as citizens than if the State had
never been; and iniquitous decrees directed solely to private interest get
passed under the name of laws.
Does it follow from this that the general will is exterminated or
corrupted? Not at all: it is always constant, unalterable and pure; but it
is subordinated to other wills which encroach upon its sphere. Each man,
in detaching his interest from the common interest, sees clearly that he
cannot entirely separate them; but his share in the public mishaps seems
to him negligible beside the exclusive good he aims at making his own.
Apart from this particular good, he wills the general good in his own
interest, as strongly as any one else. Even in selling his vote for money,
he does not extinguish in himself the general will, but only eludes it.
The fault he commits is that of changing the state of the question, and
answering something different from what he is asked. Instead of saying, by
his vote, "It is to the advantage of the State," he says, "It
is of advantage to this or that man or party that this or that view should
prevail." Thus the law of public order in assemblies is not so much
to maintain in them the general will as to secure that the question be
always put to it, and the answer always given by it.
I could here set down many reflections on the simple right of voting in
every act of Sovereignty — a right which no one can take from the
citizens — and also on the right of stating views, making proposals,
dividing and discussing, which the government is always most careful to
leave solely to its members, but this important subject would need a
treatise to itself, and it is impossible to say everything in a single
IT may be seen, from the
last chapter, that the way in which general business is managed may give a
clear enough indication of the actual state of morals and the health of
the body politic. The more concert reigns in the assemblies, that is, the
nearer opinion approaches unanimity, the greater is the dominance of the
general will. On the other hand, long debates, dissensions and tumult
proclaim the ascendancy of particular interests and the decline of the
This seems less clear when two or more orders enter into the
constitution, as patricians and plebeians did at Rome; for quarrels
between these two orders often disturbed the comitia, even in the best
days of the Republic. But the exception is rather apparent than real; for
then, through the defect that is inherent in the body politic, there were,
so to speak, two States in one, and what is not true of the two together
is true of either separately. Indeed, even in the most stormy times, the
plebiscita of the people, when the Senate did not interfere with them,
always went through quietly and by large majorities. The citizens having
but one interest, the people had but a single will.
At the other extremity of the circle, unanimity recurs; this is the case
when the citizens, having fallen into servitude, have lost both liberty
and will. Fear and flattery then change votes into acclamation;
deliberation ceases, and only worship or malediction is left. Such was the
vile manner in which the senate expressed its views under the Emperors. It
did so sometimes with absurd precautions. Tacitus observes that, under
Otho, the senators, while they heaped curses on Vitellius, contrived at
the same time to make a deafening noise, in order that, should he ever
become their master, he might not know what each of them had said.
On these various considerations depend the rules by which the methods of
counting votes and comparing opinions should be regulated, according as
the general will is more or less easy to discover, and the State more or
less in its decline.
There is but one law which, from its nature, needs unanimous consent.
This is the social compact; for civil association is the most voluntary of
all acts. Every man being born free and his own master, no one, under any
pretext whatsoever, can make any man subject without his consent. To
decide that the son of a slave is born a slave is to decide that he is not
born a man.
If then there are opponents when the social compact is made, their
opposition does not invalidate the contract, but merely prevents them from
being included in it. They are foreigners among citizens. When the State
is instituted, residence constitutes consent; to dwell within its
territory is to submit to the Sovereign.34
Apart from this primitive contract, the vote of the majority always
binds all the rest. This follows from the contract itself. But it is asked
how a man can be both free and forced to conform to wills that are not his
own. How are the opponents at once free and subject to laws they have not
I retort that the question is wrongly put. The citizen gives his consent
to all the laws, including those which are passed in spite of his
opposition, and even those which punish him when he dares to break any of
them. The constant will of all the members of the State is the general
will; by virtue of it they are citizens and free.35
When in the popular assembly a law is proposed, what the people is asked
is not exactly whether it approves or rejects the proposal, but whether it
is in conformity with the general will, which is their will. Each man, in
giving his vote, states his opinion on that point; and the general will is
found by counting votes. When therefore the opinion that is contrary to my
own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken,
and that what I thought to be the general will was not so. If my
particular opinion had carried the day I should have achieved the opposite
of what was my will; and it is in that case that I should not have been
This presupposes, indeed, that all the qualities of the general will
still reside in the majority: when they cease to do so, whatever side a
man may take, liberty is no longer possible.
In my earlier demonstration of how particular wills are substituted for
the general will in public deliberation, I have adequately pointed out the
practicable methods of avoiding this abuse; and I shall have more to say
of them later on. I have also given the principles for determining the
proportional number of votes for declaring that will. A difference of one
vote destroys equality; a single opponent destroys unanimity; but between
equality and unanimity, there are several grades of unequal division, at
each of which this proportion may be fixed in accordance with the
condition and the needs of the body politic.
There are two general rules that may serve to regulate this relation.
First, the more grave and important the questions discussed, the nearer
should the opinion that is to prevail approach unanimity. Secondly, the
more the matter in hand calls for speed, the smaller the prescribed
difference in the numbers of votes may be allowed to become: where an
instant decision has to be reached, a majority of one vote should be
enough. The first of these two rules seems more in harmony with the laws,
and the second with practical affairs. In any case, it is the combination
of them that gives the best proportions for determining the majority
IN the elections of the
prince and the magistrates, which are, as I have said, complex acts, there
are two possible methods of procedure, choice and lot. Both have been
employed in various republics, and a highly complicated mixture of the two
still survives in the election of the Doge at Venice.
"Election by lot," says Montesquieu, "is democratic in
nature."E3 I agree that it is
so; but in what sense? "The lot," he goes on, "is a way of
making choice that is unfair to nobody; it leaves each citizen a
reasonable hope of serving his country." These are not reasons.
If we bear in mind that the election of rulers is a function of
government, and not of Sovereignty, we shall see why the lot is the method
more natural to democracy, in which the administration is better in
proportion as the number of its acts is small.
In every real democracy, magistracy is not an advantage, but a
burdensome charge which cannot justly be imposed on one individual rather
than another. The law alone can lay the charge on him on whom the lot
falls. For, the conditions being then the same for all, and the choice not
depending on any human will, there is no particular application to alter
the universality of the law.
In an aristocracy, the prince chooses the prince, the government is
preserved by itself, and voting is rightly ordered.
The instance of the election of the Doge of Venice confirms, instead of
destroying, this distinction; the mixed form suits a mixed government. For
it is an error to take the government of Venice for a real aristocracy. If
the people has no share in the government, the nobility is itself the
people. A host of poor Barnabotes never gets near any magistracy, and its
nobility consists merely in the empty title of Excellency, and in the
right to sit in the Great Council. As this Great Council is as numerous as
our General Council at Geneva, its illustrious members have no more
privileges than our plain citizens. It is indisputable that, apart from
the extreme disparity between the two republics, the bourgeoisie
of Geneva is exactly equivalent to the patriciate of Venice; our
natives and inhabitants correspond to the townsmen
and the people of Venice; our peasants correspond to the
subjects on the mainland; and, however that republic be regarded,
if its size be left out of account, its government is no more aristocratic
than our own. The whole difference is that, having no life-ruler, we do
not, like Venice, need to use the lot.
Election by lot would have few disadvantages in a real democracy, in
which, as equality would everywhere exist in morals and talents as well as
in principles and fortunes, it would become almost a matter of
indifference who was chosen. But I have already said that a real democracy
is only an ideal.
When choice and lot are combined, positions that require special
talents, such as military posts, should be filled by the former; the
latter does for cases, such as judicial offices, in which good sense,
justice, and integrity are enough, because in a State that is well
constituted, these qualities are common to all the citizens.
Neither lot nor vote has any place in monarchical government. The
monarch being by right sole prince and only magistrate, the choice of his
lieutenants belongs to none but him. When the Abbé de Saint-Pierre
proposed that the Councils of the King of France should be multiplied, and
their members elected by ballot, he did not see that he was proposing to
change the form of government.
I should now speak of the methods of giving and counting opinions in the
assembly of the people; but perhaps an account of this aspect of the Roman
constitution will more forcibly illustrate all the rules I could lay down.
It is worth the while of a judicious reader to follow in some detail the
working of public and private affairs in a Council consisting of two
hundred thousand men.
4. THE ROMAN COMITIA
WE are without
well-certified records of the first period of Rome's existence; it even
appears very probable that most of the stories told about it are fables;
indeed, generally speaking, the most instructive part of the history of
peoples, that which deals with their foundation, is what we have least of.
Experience teaches us every day what causes lead to the revolutions of
empires; but, as no new peoples are now formed, we have almost nothing
beyond conjecture to go upon in explaining how they were created.
The customs we find established show at least that these customs had an
origin. The traditions that go back to those origins, that have the
greatest authorities behind them, and that are confirmed by the strongest
proofs, should pass for the most certain. These are the rules I have tried
to follow in inquiring how the freest and most powerful people on earth
exercised its supreme power.
After the foundation of Rome, the new-born republic, that is, the army
of its founder, composed of Albans, Sabines and foreigners, was divided
into three classes, which, from this division, took the name of tribes.
Each of these tribes was subdivided into ten curię, and each
curia into decurię, headed by leaders called curiones
Besides this, out of each tribe was taken a body of one hundred Equites
or Knights, called a century, which shows that these divisions,
being unnecessary in a town, were at first merely military. But an
instinct for greatness seems to have led the little township of Rome to
provide itself in advance with a political system suitable for the capital
of the world.
Out of this original division an awkward situation soon arose. The
tribes of the Albans (Ramnenses) and the Sabines (Tatienses) remained
always in the same condition, while that of the foreigners (Luceres)
continually grew as more and more foreigners came to live at Rome, so that
it soon surpassed the others in strength. Servius remedied this dangerous
fault by changing the principle of cleavage, and substituting for the
racial division, which he abolished, a new one based on the quarter of the
town inhabited by each tribe. Instead of three tribes he created four,
each occupying and named after one of the hills of Rome. Thus, while
redressing the inequality of the moment, he also provided for the future;
and in order that the division might be one of persons as well as
localities, he forbade the inhabitants of one quarter to migrate to
another, and so prevented the mingling of the races.
He also doubled the three old centuries of Knights and added twelve
more, still keeping the old names, and by this simple and prudent method,
succeeded in making a distinction between the body of Knights, and the
people, without a murmur from the latter.
To the four urban tribes Servius added fifteen others called rural
tribes, because they consisted of those who lived in the country, divided
into fifteen cantons. Subsequently, fifteen more were created, and the
Roman people finally found itself divided into thirty-five tribes, as it
remained down to the end of the Republic.
The distinction between urban and rural tribes had one effect which is
worth mention, both because it is without parallel elsewhere, and because
to it Rome owed the preservation of her morality and the enlargement of
her empire. We should have expected that the urban tribes would soon
monopolise power and honours, and lose no time in bringing the rural
tribes into disrepute; but what happened was exactly the reverse. The
taste of the early Romans for country life is well known. This taste they
owed to their wise founder, who made rural and military labours go along
with liberty, and, so to speak, relegated to the town arts, crafts,
intrigue, fortune and slavery.
Since therefore all Rome's most illustrious citizens lived in the fields
and tilled the earth, men grew used to seeking there alone the mainstays
of the republic. This condition, being that of the best patricians, was
honoured by all men; the simple and laborious life of the villager was
preferred to the slothful and idle life of the bourgeoisie of
Rome; and he who, in the town, would have been but a wretched proletarian,
became, as a labourer in the fields, a respected citizen. Not without
reason, says Varro, did our great-souled ancestors establish in the
village the nursery of the sturdy and valiant men who defended them in
time of war and provided for their sustenance in time of peace. Pliny
states positively that the country tribes were honoured because of the men
of whom they were composed; while cowards men wished to dishonour were
transferred, as a public disgrace, to the town tribes. The Sabine Appius
Claudius, when he had come to settle in Rome, was loaded with honours and
enrolled in a rural tribe, which subsequently took his family name.
Lastly, freedmen always entered the urban, arid never the rural, tribes:
nor is there a single example, throughout the Republic, of a freedman,
though he had become a citizen, reaching any magistracy.
This was an excellent rule; but it was carried so far that in the end it
led to a change and certainly to an abuse in the political system.
First the censors, after having for a long time claimed the right of
transferring citizens arbitrarily from one tribe to another, allowed most
persons to enrol themselves in whatever tribe they pleased. This
permission certainly did no good, and further robbed the censorship of one
of its greatest resources. Moreover, as the great and powerful all got
themselves enrolled in the country tribes, while the freedmen who had
become citizens remained with the populace in the town tribes, both soon
ceased to have any local or territorial meaning, and all were so confused
that the members of one could not be told from those of another except by
the registers; so that the idea of the word tribe became personal
instead of real, or rather came to be little more than a chimera.
It happened in addition that the town tribes, being more on the spot,
were often the stronger in the comitia and sold the State to those who
stooped to buy the votes of the rabble composing them.
As the founder had set up ten curię in each tribe, the
whole Roman people, which was then contained within the walls, consisted
of thirty curię, each with its temples, its gods, its
officers, its priests and its festivals, which were called compitalia
and corresponded to the paganalia, held in later times by the
When Servius made his new division, as the thirty curię
could not be shared equally between his four tribes, and as he was
unwilling to interfere with them, they became a further division of the
inhabitants of Rome, quite independent of the tribes: but in the case of
the rural tribes and their members there was no question of curię,
as the tribes had then become a purely civil institution, and, a new
system of levying troops having been introduced, the military divisions of
Romulus were superfluous. Thus, although every citizen was enrolled in a
tribe, there were very many who were not members of a curia.
Servius made yet a third division, quite distinct from the two we have
mentioned, which became, in its effects, the most important of all. He
distributed the whole Roman people into six classes, distinguished neither
by place nor by person, but by wealth; the first classes included the
rich, the last the poor, and those between persons of moderate means.
These six classes were subdivided into one hundred and ninety-three other
bodies, called centuries, which were so divided that the first class alone
comprised more than half of them, while the last comprised only one. Thus
the class that had the smallest number of members had the largest number
of centuries, and the whole of the last class only counted as a single
subdivision, although it alone included more than half the inhabitants of
In order that the people might have the less insight into the results of
this arrangement, Servius tried to give it a military tone: in the second
class he inserted two centuries of armourers, and in the fourth two of
makers of instruments of war: in each class, except the last, he
distinguished young and old, that is, those who were under an obligation
to bear arms and those whose age gave them legal exemption. It was this
distinction, rather than that of wealth, which required frequent
repetition of the census or counting. Lastly, he ordered that the assembly
should be held in the Campus Martius, and that all who were of age to
serve should come there armed.
The reason for his not making in the last class also the division of
young and old was that the populace, of whom it was composed, was not
given the right to bear arms for its country: a man had to possess a
hearth to acquire the right to defend it, and of all the troops of beggars
who to-day lend lustre to the armies of kings, there is perhaps not one
who would not have been driven with scorn out of a Roman cohort, at a time
when soldiers were the defenders of liberty.
In this last class, however, proletarians were distinguished
from capite censi. The former, not quite reduced to nothing, at
least gave the State citizens, and sometimes, when the need was pressing,
even soldiers. Those who had nothing at all, and could be numbered only by
counting heads, were regarded as of absolutely no account, and Marius was
the first who stooped to enrol them.
Without deciding now whether this third arrangement was good or bad in
itself, I think I may assert that it could have been made practicable only
by the simple morals, the disinterestedness, the liking for agriculture
and the scorn for commerce and for love of gain which characterised the
early Romans. Where is the modern people among whom consuming greed,
unrest, intrigue, continual removals, and perpetual changes of fortune,
could let such a system last for twenty years without turning the State
upside down? We must indeed observe that morality and the censorship,
being stronger than this institution, corrected its defects at Rome, and
that the rich man found himself degraded to the class of the poor for
making too much display of his riches.
From all this it is easy to understand why only five classes are almost
always mentioned, though there were really six. The sixth, as it furnished
neither soldiers to the army nor votes in the Campus Martius,36
and was almost without function in the State, was seldom regarded as of
These were the various ways in which the Roman people was divided. Let
us now see the effect on the assemblies. When lawfully summoned, these
were called comitia: they were usually held in the public square
at Rome or in the Campus Martius, and were distinguished as comitia
curiata, comitia centuriata, and comitia tributa, according to
the form under which they were convoked. The comitia curiata were
founded by Romulus; the centuriata by Servius; and the tributa
by the tribunes of the people. No law received its sanction and no
magistrate was elected, save in the comitia; and as every citizen was
enrolled in a curia, a century, or a tribe, it follows that no
citizen was excluded from the right of voting, and that the Roman people
was truly sovereign both de jure and de facto.
For the comitia to be lawfully assembled, and for their acts to have the
force of law, three conditions were necessary. First, the body or
magistrate convoking them had to possess the necessary authority;
secondly, the assembly had to be held on a day allowed by law; and
thirdly, the auguries had to be favourable.
The reason for the first regulation needs no explanation; the second is
a matter of policy. Thus, the comitia might not be held on festivals or
market-days, when the country-folk, coming to Rome on business, had not
time to spend the day in the public square. By means of the third, the
senate held in check the proud and restive people, and meetly restrained
the ardour of seditious tribunes, who, however, found more than one way of
escaping this hindrance.
Laws and the election of rulers were not the only questions submitted to
the judgment of the comitia: as the Roman people had taken on itself the
most important functions of government, it may be said that the lot of
Europe was regulated in its assemblies. The variety of their objects gave
rise to the various forms these took, according to the matters on which
they had to pronounce.
In order to judge of these various forms, it is enough to compare them.
Romulus, when he set up curia, had in view the checking of the
senate by the people, and of the people by the senate, while maintaining
his ascendancy over both alike. He therefore gave the people, by means of
this assembly, all the authority of numbers to balance that of power and
riches, which he left to the patricians. But, after the spirit of
monarchy, he left all the same a greater advantage to the patricians in
the influence of their clients on the majority of votes. This excellent
institution of patron and client was a masterpiece of statesmanship and
humanity without which the patriciate, being flagrantly in contradiction
to the republican spirit, could not have survived. Rome alone has the
honour of having given to the world this great example, which never led to
any abuse, and yet has never been followed.
As the assemblies by curię persisted under the kings till
the time of Servius, and the reign of the later Tarquin was not regarded
as legitimate, royal laws were called generally leges curiatę.
Under the Republic, the curię, still confined to the four
urban tribes, and including only the populace of Rome, suited neither the
senate, which led the patricians, nor the tribunes, who, though plebeians,
were at the head of the well-to-do citizens. They therefore fell into
disrepute, and their degradation was such, that thirty lictors used to
assemble and do what the comitia curiata should have done.
The division by centuries was so favourable to the aristocracy that it
is hard to see at first how the senate ever failed to carry the day in the
comitia bearing their name, by which the consuls, the censors and the
other curule magistrates were elected. Indeed, of the hundred and
ninety-three centuries into which the six classes of the whole Roman
people were divided, the first class contained ninety-eight; and, as
voting went solely by centuries, this class alone had a majority over all
the rest. When all these centuries were in agreement, the rest of the
votes were not even taken; the decision of the smallest number passed for
that of the multitude, and it may be said that, in the comitia
centuriata, decisions were regulated far more by depth of purses than
by the number of votes.
But this extreme authority was modified in two ways. First, the tribunes
as a rule, and always a great number of plebeians, belonged to the class
of the rich, and so counterbalanced the influence of the patricians in the
The second way was this. Instead of causing the centuries to vote
throughout in order, which would have meant beginning always with the
first, the Romans always chose one by lot which proceeded alone to the
election; after this all the centuries were summoned another day according
to their rank, and the same election was repeated, and as a rule
confirmed. Thus the authority of example was taken away from rank, and
given to the lot on a democratic principle.
From this custom resulted a further advantage. The citizens from the
country had time, between the two elections, to inform themselves of the
merits of the candidate who had been provisionally nominated, and did not
have to vote without knowledge of the case. But, under the pretext of
hastening matters, the abolition of this custom was achieved, and both
elections were held on the same day.
The comitia tributa were properly the council of the Roman
people. They were convoked by the tribunes alone; at them the tribunes
were elected and passed their plebiscita. The senate not only had no
standing in them, but even no right to be present; and the senators, being
forced to obey laws on which they could not vote, were in this respect
less free than the meanest citizens. This injustice was altogether
ill-conceived, and was alone enough to invalidate the decrees of a body to
which all its members were not admitted. Had all the patricians attended
the comitia by virtue of the right they had as citizens, they would not,
as mere private individuals, have had any considerable influence on a vote
reckoned by counting heads, where the meanest proletarian was as good as
the princeps senatus.
It may be seen, therefore, that besides the order which was achieved by
these various ways of distributing so great a people and taking its votes,
the various methods were not reducible to forms indifferent in themselves,
but the results of each were relative to the objects which caused it to be
Without going here into further details, we may gather from what has
been said above that the comitia tributa were the most favourable
to popular government, and the comitia centuriata to aristocracy.
The comitia curiata, in which the populace of Rome formed the
majority, being fitted only to further tyranny and evil designs, naturally
fell into disrepute, and even seditious persons abstained from using a
method which too clearly revealed their projects. It is indisputable that
the whole majesty of the Roman people lay solely in the comitia
centuriata, which alone included all; for the comitia curiata
excluded the rural tribes, and the comitia tributa the senate and
As for the method of taking the vote, it was among the ancient Romans as
simple as their morals, although not so simple as at Sparta. Each man
declared his vote aloud, and a clerk duly wrote it down; the majority in
each tribe determined the vote of the tribe, the majority of the tribes
that of the people, and so with curię and centuries. This
custom was good as long as honesty was triumphant among the citizens, and
each man was ashamed to vote publicly in favour of an unjust proposal or
an unworthy subject; but, when the people grew corrupt and votes were
bought, it was fitting that voting should be secret in order that
purchasers might be restrained by mistrust, and rogues be given the means
of not being traitors.
I know that Cicero attacks this change, and attributes partly to it the
ruin of the Republic. But though I feel the weight Cicero's authority must
carry on such a point, I cannot agree with him; I hold, on the contrary,
that, for want of enough such changes, the destruction of the State must
be hastened. Just as the regimen of health does not suit the sick, we
should not wish to govern a people that has been corrupted by the laws
that a good people requires. There is no better proof of this rule than
the long life of the Republic of Venice, of which the shadow still exists,
solely because its laws are suitable only for men who are wicked.
The citizens were provided, therefore, with tablets by means of which
each man could vote without any one knowing how he voted: new methods were
also introduced for collecting the tablets, for counting voices, for
comparing numbers, etc.; but all these precautions did not prevent the
good faith of the officers charged with these functions37
from being often suspect. Finally, to prevent intrigues and trafficking in
votes, edicts were issued; but their very number proves how useless they
Towards the close of the Republic, it was often necessary to have
recourse to extraordinary expedients in order to supplement the inadequacy
of the laws. Sometimes miracles were supposed; but this method, while it
might impose on the people, could not impose on those who governed.
Sometimes an assembly was hastily called together, before the candidates
had time to form their factions: sometimes a whole sitting was occupied
with talk, when it was seen that the people had been won over and was on
the point of taking up a wrong position. But in the end ambition eluded
all attempts to check it; and the most incredible fact of all is that, in
the midst of all these abuses, the vast people, thanks to its ancient
regulations, never ceased to elect magistrates, to pass laws, to judge
cases, and to carry through business both public and private, almost as
easily as the senate itself could have done.
5. THE TRIBUNATE
WHEN an exact proportion
cannot be established between the constituent parts of the State, or when
causes that cannot be removed continually alter the relation of one part
to another, recourse is had to the institution of a peculiar magistracy
that enters into no corporate unity with the rest. This restores to each
term its right relation to the others, and provides a link or middle term
between either prince and people, or prince and Sovereign, or, if
necessary, both at once.
This body, which I shall call the tribunate, is the preserver of
the laws and of the legislative power. It serves sometimes to protect the
Sovereign against the government, as the tribunes of the people did at
Rome; sometimes to uphold the government against the people, as the
Council of Ten now does at Venice; and sometimes to maintain the balance
between the two, as the Ephors did at Sparta.
The tribunate is not a constituent part of the city, and should have no
share in either legislative or executive power; but this very fact makes
its own power the greater: for, while it can do nothing, it can prevent
anything from being done. It is more sacred and more revered, as the
defender of the laws, than the prince who executes them, or than the
Sovereign which ordains them. This was seen very clearly at Rome, when the
proud patricians, for all their scorn of the people, were forced to bow
before one of its officers, who had neither auspices nor jurisdiction.
The tribunate, wisely tempered, is the strongest support a good
constitution can have; but if its strength is ever so little excessive, it
upsets the whole State. Weakness, on the other hand, is not natural to it:
provided it is something, it is never less than it should be.
It degenerates into tyranny when it usurps the executive power, which it
should confine itself to restraining, and when it tries to dispense with
the laws, which it should confine itself to protecting. The immense power
of the Ephors, harmless as long as Sparta preserved its morality, hastened
corruption when once it had begun. The blood of Agis, slaughtered by these
tyrants, was avenged by his successor; the crime and the punishment of the
Ephors alike hastened the destruction of the republic, and after Cleomenes
Sparta ceased to be of any account. Rome perished in the same way: the
excessive power of the tribunes, which they had usurped by degrees,
finally served, with the help of laws made to secure liberty, as a
safeguard for the emperors who destroyed it. As for the Venetian Council
of Ten, it is a tribunal of blood, an object of horror to patricians and
people alike; and, so far from giving a lofty protection to the laws, it
does nothing, now they have become degraded, but strike in the darkness
blows of which no one dare take note.
The tribunate, like the government, grows weak as the number of its
members increases. When the tribunes of the Roman people, who first
numbered only two, and then five, wished to double that number, the senate
let them do so, in the confidence that it could use one to check another,
as indeed it afterwards freely did.
The best method of preventing usurpations by so formidable a body,
though no government has yet made use of it, would be not to make it
permanent, but to regulate the periods during which it should remain in
abeyance. These intervals, which should not be long enough to give abuses
time to grow strong, may be so fixed by law that they can easily be
shortened at need by extraordinary commissions.
This method seems to me to have no disadvantages, because, as I have
said, the tribunate, which forms no part of the constitution