Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
By Sydney Smith (17711845)
From Review of Bentham on Fallacies
WHAT would our ancestors say to this, sir? How does this measure tally with our institutions? How does it agree with their experience? Are we to put the wisdom of yesterday in competition with the wisdom of centuries? (Hear, hear.) Is beardless youth to show no respect for the decisions of mature age? (Loud cries of hear, hear.) If this measure be right, would it have escaped the wisdom of those Saxon progenitors to whom we are indebted for so many of our best political institutions? Would the Dane have passed it over? Would the Norman have rejected it? Would such a notable discovery have been reserved for these modern and degenerate thins? Besides, sir, if the measure itself is good, I ask the honourable gentleman if this is the time for carrying it into executionwhether, in fact, a more unfortunate period could have been selected than that which he has chosen? If this were an ordinary measure, I should not oppose it with so much vehemence; but, sir, it calls in question the wisdom of an irrevocable lawof a law passed at the memorable period of the Revolution. What right have we, sir, to break down this firm column on which the great men of that age stamped a character of eternity? Are not all authorities against this measurePitt, Fox, Cicero, and the Attorney and Solicitor General? The proposition is new, sir; it is the first time it was ever heard in this house. I am not prepared, sirthis house is not preparedto receive it. The measure implies a distrust of his Majestys Government; their disapproval is sufficient to warrant opposition. Precaution only is requisite where danger is apprehended. Here the high character of the individuals in question is a sufficient guarantee against any ground of alarm. Give not, then, your sanction to this measure; for, whatever be its character, if you do give your sanction to it, the same man by whom this is proposed, will propose to you others to which it will be impossible to give your consent. I care very little, sir, for the ostensible measure; but what is there behind? What are the honourable gentlemans future schemes? If we pass this bill, what fresh concessions may he not require? What further degradation is he planning for our country? Talk of evil and inconvenience, sir! look to other countriesstudy other aggregations and societies of men, and then see whether the laws of this country demand a remedy or deserve a panegyric. Was the honourable gentleman (let me ask him) always of this way of thinking? Do I not remember when he was the advocate in this house of very opposite opinions? I not only quarrel with his present sentiments, sir, but I declare very frankly I do not like the party with which he acts. If his own motives were as pure as possible, they cannot but suffer contamination from those with whom he is politically associated. This measure may be a boon to the constitution, but I will accept no favour to the constitution from such hands. (Loud cries of hear, hear.) I profess myself, sir, an honest and upright member of the British Parliament, and I am not afraid to profess myself an enemy to all change and all innovation. I am satisfied with things as they are; and it will be my pride and pleasure to hand down this country to my children as I received it from those who preceded me. The honourable gentleman pretends to justify the severity with which he has attacked the noble lord who presides over the Court of Chancery. But I say such attacks are pregnant with mischief to government itself. Oppose ministers, you oppose government; disgrace ministers, you disgrace government; bring ministers into contempt, you bring government into contempt; and anarchy and civil war are the consequences. Besides, sir, the measure is unnecessary. Nobody complains of disorder in that shape in which it is the aim of your measure to propose a remedy to it. The business is one of the greatest importance; there is need of the greatest caution and circumspection. Do not let us be precipitate, sir; it is impossible to foresee all consequences. Everything should be gradual; the example of a neighbouring nation should fill us with alarm! The honourable gentleman has taxed me with illiberality, sir. I deny the charge. I hate innovation, but I love improvement. I am an enemy to the corruption of government, but I defend its influence. I dread reform, but I dread it only when it is intemperate. I consider the liberty of the press as the great palladium of the constitution; but at the same time I hold the licentiousness of the press in the greatest abhorrence. Nobody is more conscious than I am of the splendid abilities of the honourable mover, but I tell him at once, his scheme is too good to be practicable. It savours of Utopia. It looks well in theory, but it wont do in practice. It will not do, I repeat, sir, in practice; and so the advocates of the measure will find, if, unfortunately, it should find its way through parliament. (Cheers.) The source of that corruption to which the honourable member alludes, is in the minds of the people; so rank and extensive is that corruption, that no political reform can have any effect in removing it. Instead of reforming othersinstead of reforming the state, the constitution, and everything that is most excellent, let each man reform himself! let him look at home, he will find there enough to do, without looking abroad and aiming at what is out of his power. (Loud cheers.) And now, sir, as it is frequently the custom of this house to end with a quotation, and as the gentleman who preceded me in this debate has anticipated me in my favourite quotation of the Strong pull and the long pull, I shall end with the memorable words of the assembled baronsNolumus leges Angliæ mutari.