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
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.