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Of Political Associations

Arguments in their favour. - Answer. - Associations put a part for the 
   whole - are attended with party spirit - declamation - cabal - con-
   tentious disputes - restlessness - and tumult. - Utility of social com-
   munication. - Exception in favour of associations. - Another excep-
   tion. - Conclusion.

A QUESTION suggests itself under this branch of enquiry, respecting the propriety of associations among the people at large for the purpose of operating a change in their political institutions.

Many arguments have been alleged in favour of such associations. It has been said "that they are necessary to give effect to public opinion, which, in its insulated state, is incapable of counteracting abuses the most generally disapproved, or of carrying into effect what is most gen erally desired." They have been represented "as indispensable for the purpose of ascertaining public opinion, which must otherwise forever remain in a great degree problematical." Lastly, they have been pointed out "as the most useful means for generating a sound public opinion, and diffusing, in the most rapid and effectual manner, political information."

In answer to these allegations, varlous things may be observed. That opinion will always have its weight;1 that all government is founded in opinion;2 and that public institutions will fluctuate with the fluctuations of opinion, without its being necessary for that purpose that opinion should be furnished with an extraordinary organ;3 are points perhaps sufficiently established in the preceding divisions of this work. These principles amount to a sufficient answer to the two first arguments in favour of political associations: the third shall receive a more particular discussion.

One of the most obvious features of political association is its tendency to make a part stand for the whole. A number of persons, sometimes greater and sometimes less, combine together. The tendency of their combination, often avowed, but always unavoidable, is to give to their opinion a weight and operation which the opinion of unconnected individuals cannot have. A greater number, some from the urgency of their private affairs, some from a temper averse to scenes of concourse and contention, and others from a conscientious disapprobation of the measures pursued, withhold themselves from such combinations. The acrimonious, the intemperate, and the artful will generally be found among the most forward in matters of this kind. The prudent, the sober, the sceptical, and the contemplative, those who have no resentments to gratify, and no selfish purposes to promote, will be overborne and lost in the progress. What justification can be advanced for a few persons who thus, from mere impetuosity and incontinence of temper, occupy a post the very principle of which is the passing them for some thing greater and more important in the community than they are? Is the business of reform likely to be well and judiciously conducted in such hands? Add to this that associations in favour of one set of political tenets are likely to engender counter-associations in favour of another. Thus we should probably be involved in all the mischiefs of resistance, and all the uproar of revolution.

Political reform cannot be usefully effected but through the medium of the discovery of political truth. But truth will never be investigated in a manner sufficiently promising if violence and passion be not removed to a distance. To whatever property adhering to the human mind, or accident affecting it, we are to ascribe the phenomenon, certain it is that truth does not lie upon the surface. It is laborious enquiry that has, in almost all instances, led to important discovery. If therefore we are desirous to liberate ourselves and our neighbours from the influence of prejudice, we must suffer nothing but arguments to bear sway in the discussion. The writings and the tenets which offer themselves to public attention should rest upon their own merits. No patronage, no recommendations, no lift of venerable names to bribe our suffrage, no importunity to induce us, to bestow upon them our consideration, and to consider them with favour. These however are small matters. It is much worse than this, when any species of publications is patronized by political associations. The publications are then perused, not to see whether what they contain is true or false, but that the reader may learn from them how he is to think upon the subjects of which they treat. A sect is generated, and upon grounds not less irrational than those of the worst superstition that ever infested mankind.

If we would arrive at truth, each man must be taught to enquire and think for himself. If a hundred men spontaneously engage the whole energy of their faculties upon the solution of a given question, the chance of success will be greater than if only ten men are so employed. By the same reason, the chance will also be increased in proportion as the intellectual operations of these men are individual, and their conclusions are suggested by the reason of the thing, uninfluenced by the force either of compulsion or sympathy. But, in political associations, the object of each man is to identify his creed with that of his neighbour. We learn the Shibboleth of a party. We dare not leave our minds at large in the field of enquiry, lest we should arrive at some tenet disrelished by our party. We have no temptation to enquire. Party has a more powerful tendency than perhaps any other circumstance in human affairs to render the mind quiescent and stationary. Instead of making each man an individual, which the interest of the whole requires, it resolves all understandings into one common mass, and substracts from each the varieties that could alone distinguish him from a brute machine. Having learned the creed of our party, we have no longer any employment for those faculties which might lead us to detect its errors. We have arrived, in our own opinion, at the last page of the volume of truth; and all that remains is by some means to effect the adoption of our sentiments as the standard of right to the whole race of mankind. The indefatigable votary of justice and truth will adhere to a mode of proceeding the opposite of this. He will mix at large among his species; he will converse with men of all orders and parties; he will fear to attach himself in his intercourse to any particular set of men, lest his thoughts should become insensibly warped, and he should make to himself a world of petty dimensions, instead of that liberal and various scene in which nature has permitted him to expatiate. In fine, from these considerations it appears that associations, instead of promoting the growth and diffusion of truth, tend only to check its accumulation, and render its operation, as far as possible, unnatural and mischievous.

There is another circumstance to be mentioned, strongly calculated to confirm this position. A necessary attendant upon political associations is harangue and declamation. A majority of the members of any numerous popular society will look to these harangues as the school in which they are to study, in order to become the reservoirs of practical truth to the rest of mankind. But harangues and declamation lead to passion, and not to knowledge. The memory of the hearer is crowded with pompous nothings, with images and not arguments. He is never permitted to be sober enough to weigh things with an unshaken hand. It would be inconsistent with the art of eloquence to strip the subject of every meretricious ornament. Instead of informing the understanding of the hearer by a flow and regular progression, the orator must beware of detail, must render everything rapid, and from time to time work up the passions of his hearers to a tempest of applause. Truth can scarcely be acquired in crowded halls and amidst noisy debates. Where hope and fear, triumph and resentment, are perpetually afloat, the severer faculties of investigation are compelled to quit the field. Truth dwells with contemplation. We can seldom make much progress in the business of disentangling error and delusion but in sequestered privacy, or in the tranquil interchange of sentiments that takes place between two persons.

In every numerous association of men there will be a portion of rivalship and ambition. Those persons who stand forward in the assembly will be anxious to increase the number of their favourers and adherents. This anxiety will necessarily engender some degree of art. It is unavoidable that, in thinking much of the public, they should not be led, by this propensity, to think much also of themselves. In the propositions they bring forward, in the subjects they discuss, in the side they espouse of these subjects, they will inevitably be biassed by the consider ation of what will be most acceptable to their partisans, and popular with their hearers. There is a sort of partiality to particular men that is commendable. We ought to honour usefulness, and adhere to worth. But the partiality which is disingenuously cultivated by weakness on both sides is not commendable. The partiality which grows out of a mutual surrender of the understanding, where the leader first resigns the integrity of his judgement, that he may cherish and take advantage of the defects of his followers, bears an unfavourable aspect upon the common welfare. In this scene truth cannot gain; on the contrary it is forgotten, that error, a more accommodating principle, may be exhibited to advantage, and serve the personal ends of its professors.

Another feature attendant on collections of men meeting together for the transaction of business is contentious dispute and long consultation about matters of the most trivial importance. Every human being possesses, and ought to possess, his particular mode of seeing and judging. The business upon such occasions is to twist and distort the sense of each, so that, though they were all different at first, they may in the end be all alike. Is any proposition, letter, or declaration, to be drawn up in the name of the whole? Perhaps it is confided to one man at first, but it is amended, altered and metamorphosed, according to the fancy of many, till at last, what once perhaps was reasonable comes out the most inexplicable jargon. Commas are to be adjusted, and particles debated. Is this an employment for rational beings? Is this an improvement upon the simple and inartificial scene of things, when each man speaks and writes his mind, in such eloquence as his sentiments dictate, and with unfettered energy; not anxious, while he gives vent to the enthusiasm of his conceptions, lest his words should not be exactly those in which his neighbours would equally have chosen to express themselves?

An appetite pelpetually vexing the minds of political associators is that of doing something, that their association may not fall into insignificancy. Affairs must wait upon them, and not they wait upon affairs. They are not content to act when some public emergence seems to require their interference, and point out to them a just mode of proceeding; they must make the emergence to satisfy the restlessness of their disposition. Thus they are ever at hand, to mar the tranquillity of science, and the unshackled and unobserved progress of truth. They terrify the rest of the community from boldness of opinion, and chain them down to their prejudices, by the alarm which is excited by their turbulence of character. - It should always be remembered in these cases that all confederate action is of the nature of government, and that consequently every argument of this work, which is calculated to display the evils of government, and to recommend the restraining it within as narrow limits as possible, is equally hostile to political associations. They have also a disadvantage peculiar to themselves, as they are an obvious usurpation upon the rights of the public, without any pretence of delegation from the community at large.

The last circumstance to be enumerated among the disadvantages of political association is its tendency to disorder and tumult. Nothing is more notorious than the ease with which the conviviality of a crowded feast may degenerate into the depredations of a riot. While the sympathy of opinion catches from man to man, especially among persons whose passions have been little used to the curb of judgement, actions may be determined on which the solitary reflection of all would have rejected. There is nothing more barbarous, blood-thirsty and unfeeling than the triumph of a mob. It should be remembered that the members of such associations are ever employed in cultivating a sentiment peculiarly hostile to political justice, antipathy to individuals; not a benevolent love of equality, but a bitter and personal detestation of their oppressors.

But, though association, in the received sense of that term, must be granted to be an instrument of very dangerous nature, unreserved communication, especially among persons who are already awakened to the pursuit of truth, is of no less unquestionable advantage. There is at present in the world a cold reserve that keeps man at a distance from man. There is an art in the practice of which individuals communicate for ever, without anyone telling his neighbour what estimate he forms of his attainments and character, how they ought to be employed, and how to be improved. There is a sort of domestic tactics, the object of which is to elude curiosity, and keep up the tenour of conversation, without the disclosure either of our feelings or opinions. The friend of justice will have no object more deeply at heart than the annihilation of this duplicity. The man whose heart overflows with kindness for his species will habituate himself to consider, in each successive occasion of social intercourse, how that occasion may be most beneficently improved. Among the topics to which he will be anxious to awaken attention, politics will occupy a principal share.

Books have by their very nature but a limited operation; though, on account of their permanence, their methodical disquisition, and their easiness of access, they are entitled to the foremost place. The number of those who almost wholly abstain from reading is exceedingly great. Books, to those by whom they are read, have a sort of constitutional coldness. We review the arguments of an "insolent innovator" with sullenness, and are unwilling to expand our minds to take in their force. It is with difficulty that we obtain the courage to strike into untrodden paths, and question tenets that have been generally received. But conversation accustoms us to hear a variety of sentiments, obliges us to exercise patience and attention, and gives freedom and elasticity to our disquisitions. A thinking man, if he will recollect his intellectual history, will find that he has derived inestimable benefit from the stimulus and surprise of colloquial suggestions; and, if he review the history of literature, will perceive that minds of great acuteness and ability have commonly existed in a cluster.

It follows that the promoting the best interests of mankind eminently depends upon the freedom of social communication. Let us figure to ourselves a number of individuals who, having stored their minds with reading and reflection, are accustomed, in candid and unreserved conversation, to compare their ideas, suggest their doubts, examine their mutual difficulties and cultivate a perspicuous and animated manner of delivering their sentiments. Let us suppose that their intercourse is not confined to the society of each other, but that they are desirous extensively to communicate the truths with which they are acquainted. Let us suppose their illustrations to be not more distinguished by impartiality and demonstrative clearness than by the mildness of their temper, and a spirit of comprehensive benevolence. We shall then have an idea of knowledge as perpetually gaining ground, unaccompanied with peril in the means of its diffusion. Their hearers will be instigated to impart their acquisitions to still other hearers, and the circle of instruction will perpetually increase. Reason will spread, and not a brute and unintelligent sympathy.

Discussion perhaps never exists with so much vigour and utility as in the conversation of two persons. It may be carried on with advantage in small and friendly circles. Does the fewness of their numbers imply the rarity of such discussion? Far otherwise: show to mankind, by an adequate example, the advantages of political disquisition, undebauched by political enmity and vehemence, and the beauty of the spectacle will soon render it contagious. Every man will commune with his neighbour. Every man will be eager to tell, and to hear, what the interests of all require them to know. The bolts and fortifications of the temple of truth will be removed. The craggy steep of science, which it was before difficult to ascend, will be levelled. Knowledge will be generally accessible. Wisdom will be the inheritance of man, and none will be excluded from it but by their own heedlessness and prodigality. Truth, and above all political truth, is not hard to acquisition, but from the superciliousness of its professors. It has been slow and tedious of improvement, because the study of it has been relegated to doctors and civilians. It has produced little effect upon the practice of mankind, because it has not been allowed a plain and direct appeal to their understandings. Remove these obstacles, render it the common property, bring it into daily use, and we may reasonably promise ourselves consequences of inestimable value.

But these consequences are the property only of independent and impartial discussion. If once the unambitious and candid disquisitions of enquiring men be swallowed up in the insatiate gulf of noisy assemblies, the opportunity of improvement is annihilated. The happy varieties of sentiment which so eminently contribute to intellectual acuteness are lost. A fallacious uniformity of opinion is produced, which no man espouses from conviction, but which carries all men along with a resistless tide. Truth disclaims the alliance of marshalled numbers.

The same qualifications belong to this subject, as before to the head of revolutions. Though, from what has been said, it may sufficiently appear that association is scarcely in any case to be desired, there are considerations which should lead us sometimes to judge it with moderation and forbearance. There is one mode according to which the benefit of mankind may best be promoted, and which ought always to be employed. But mankind are imperfect beings. While opinion is advancing with silent step, impatience and zeal may be expected somewhat to outrun her progress. Associations, as a measure intrinsically wrong, the wise man will endeavour to check and postpone, as much as he can. But, when the crisis arrives, he will not be induced by the irregularities of the friends of equality to remain neutral, but will endeavour to forward her reign, as far as the nature of the case shall appear to admit. It may even happen that, in the moment of convulsion, and the terror of general anarchy, something in the nature of association may be indispensably connected with the general safety. But, even granting this, it need not be prepared beforehand. Such preparation has a tendency to wear out the expedient. In a crisis really auspicious to public liberty, it is reason able to believe that there will be men of character and vigour, called out on the spur of the occasion, and by the state of political knowledge in general, who will be adequate to the scenes they have to encounter. The soil in which such men are to be matured is less that of action than of enquiry and instruction.

Again; there are two objects which association may propose to itself, general reform and the remedy of some pressing and momentary evil. These objects may be entitled to a different treatment. The first ought surely to proceed with a leisurely step, and in all possible tranquillity. The second appears to require somewhat more of activity. It is the characteristic of truth to trust much to its own energy, and to resist invasion rather by the force of conviction than of arms. The oppressed individual however seems particularly entitled to our assistance; and this can best be afforded by the concurrence of many. It appears reasonable that, when a man is unjustly attacked by the whole force of the party in power, he should be countenanced and protected by men who are determined to resist such oppressive partiality, and prevent the rights of all from being wounded through the medium of the individual, as far as that can be done consistently with peace and-good order. It is probable however that every association will degenerate, and become a mass of abuses that is suffered to perpetuate itself, or to exist longer than is necessary, for the single and momentary purpose for which only it can justly be instituted.

It seems scarcely necessary to add in treating this subject that the individuals who are engaged in the transactions here censured have frequently been excited by the best intentions, and inspired with the most liberal views. It would be in the highest degree unjust if their undertakings should be found of dangerous tendency, to involve the authors in indiscriminate censure for consequences they did not foresee. But, in proportion to the purity of their views and the soundness of their principles, it were to be desired they should seriously reflect on the means they employ. It will be greatly to be lamented if those who, so far as regards their intention, are among the truest friends to the welfare of mankind should, by the injudiciousness of their conduct, rank themselves among its practical enemies.


1Book I, Chap. V.
2Book I. Chap. VI. p. 148; Book II, Chap. III, pp. 144-5.
3Book I, Chap. V; Book III, Chap.VII; Book IV, Chap. II.
To Book IV, Chapter IV.
To Table of Contents
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