The members of the English Parliament are fond of comparing themselves, on all occasions, to the old Romans.
Not long ago, Mr. Shipping opened a speech in the house of commons with these words: "The majesty of the people of England would be wounded." The singularity of this expression occasioned a loud laugh; but this gentleman, far from being disconcerted, repeated the statement in a resolute tone of voice, and the laughter ceased. I must own that I see no resemblance between the majesty of the people of England and that of the Romans, and still less between the two governments. There is in London a senate, some of whose members are accused doubtless very unjustly of selling their votes on certain occasions, as was done at Rome; and this is the whole resemblance. In other respects, the two nations appear to be entirely different, with regard both to good and to evil. The Romans never knew the terrible madness of religious wars. This abomination was reserved for devout preachers of humility and patience. Marius and Sulla, Cæsar and Pompey, Antony and Augustus, did not draw their swords against one another to determine whether their priest should wear his shirt over his robe, or his robe over his shirt; or whether the sacred chickens should both eat and drink, or eat only, in order to take the augury. The English have formerly destroyed one another, by sword or rope, for disputes of as trifling a nature. The Episcopalians and the Presbyterians quite turned the heads of these gloomy people for a time; but I believe they will hardly be so foolish again, as they seem to have grown wiser at their own expense; and I do not perceive the least inclination in them to murder one another any more for syllogisms.
Here follows a more essential difference between Rome and England, which throws the advantage entirely on the side of the latter; namely, that the civil wars of Rome ended in slavery, and those of the English in liberty. The English are the only people on earth who have been able to regulate the power of kings by resisting them, and who, by a series of struggles, have at length established that wise form of government where the prince is all-powerful to do good, and at the same time is restrained from committing evil; where the nobles are great without insolence and without vassals; and where the people share in the government without confusion.
The house of lords and the house of commons divide the legislative power under the king; but the Romans had no such balance. Their patricians and plebeians were continually at odds, without any intermediate power to reconcile them. The Roman senate, which had the unjust and reprehensible pride to wish to exclude the plebeians from having any share in the affairs of government, could find no other artifice to effect their design than to occupy them in foreign wars. They considered the people as wild beasts, whom they were to let loose upon their neighbors, for fear they should turn upon their masters. Thus the greatest defect of the government of the Romans was the means of making them conquerors; and, by being unhappy at home, they became masters of the world, till in the end their divisions made them slaves.
The government of England, from its nature, can never attain to so exalted a pitch, nor can it ever have so fatal an end. It has not in view the splendid folly of making conquests, but only the prevention of their neighbors from conquering. The English are jealous not only of their own liberty, but even of that of other nations. The only reason of their quarrels with Louis XIV was because they thought him ambitious. They made war on him out of the goodness of their heart, certainly with nothing to gain by it.
It has not been without some cost that liberty has been established in England, and the idol of arbitrary power has been drowned in seas of blood; nevertheless, the English do not think they have purchased their laws at too high a price. Other nations have not had fewer troubles, have not shed less blood, but then the blood they spilled in defense of their liberty served only to enslave them the more.
That which becomes a revolution in England is only sedition in other countries. A city in Spain, in Barbary, or in Turkey takes up arms in defense of its privileges, and immediately it is stormed by mercenary troops, punished by executioners, and the rest of the nation kiss their chains. The French think that the government of this island is more tempestuous than the seas which surround it; in which, indeed, they are not mistaken: but then this happens only when the king raises the storm by attempting to seize the ship, of which he is only the pilot. The civil wars of France lasted longer, were more cruel, and productive of greater crimes, than those of England: but none of these civil wars had a wise liberty for their object.
In the detestable times of Charles IX and Henry HI the whole affair was only whether the people should be slaves to the Guises. As to the last war of Paris, it deserves only to be hooted at. It makes us think we see a crowd of schoolboys rising up in arms against their master, and afterward being whipped for it. Cardinal de Retz, who was witty and brave, but employed those talents badly; who was rebellious without cause, factious without design, and the head of a party without an army, intrigued for the sake of intriguing, and seemed to foment the civil war for his amusement. The parliament did not know what he wanted, nor what he did not want. He levied troops, and the next instant cashiered them; he threatened; he begged pardon; he set a price on Cardinal Mazarin's head, and afterward congratulated him publicly. Our civil wars under Charles VI were bloody and cruel, those of the League execrable, and that of the Fronde ridiculous.
That for which the French chiefly reproach the English is the murder of King Charles I, who was treated by his conquerors as he would have treated them, had he been lucky.
After all, consider, on one side, Charles I, defeated in a pitched battle, imprisoned, tried, sentenced to die in Westminster Hall; and, on the other, the emperor Henry VII poisoned by his chaplain in receiving the sacrament; Henry III of France stabbed by a monk, the minister of the fury of a whole party; thirty different plots contrived to assassinate Henry IV, several of them put into execution, and the last depriving France of this great king. Weigh all these wicked attempts, and then judge.