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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
On the English Constitution
By George Canning (1770–1827)
 
From the ‘Speech on Parliamentary Reform’

OTHER nations, excited by the example of the liberty which this country has long possessed, have attempted to copy our Constitution; and some of them have shot beyond it in the fierceness of their pursuit. I grudge not to other nations that share of liberty which they may acquire: in the name of God, let them enjoy it! But let us warn them that they lose not the object of their desire by the very eagerness with which they attempt to grasp it. Inheritors and conservators of rational freedom, let us, while others are seeking it in restlessness and trouble, be a steady and shining light to guide their course; not a wandering meteor to bewilder and mislead them.  1
  Let it not be thought that this is an unfriendly or disheartening counsel to those who are either struggling under the pressure of harsh government, or exulting in the novelty of sudden emancipation. It is addressed much rather to those who, though cradled and educated amidst the sober blessings of the British Constitution, pant for other schemes of liberty than those which that Constitution sanctions—other than are compatible with a just equality of civil rights, or with the necessary restraints of social obligation; of some of whom it may be said, in the language which Dryden puts into the mouth of one of the most extravagant of his heroes, that
  “They would be free as Nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in the woods the noble savage ran.”
Noble and swelling sentiments!—but such as cannot be reduced into practice. Grand ideas!—but which must be qualified and adjusted by a compromise between the aspirings of individuals and a due concern for the general tranquillity;—must be subdued and chastened by reason and experience, before they can be directed to any useful end! A search after abstract perfection in government may produce in generous minds an enterprise and enthusiasm to be recorded by the historian and to be celebrated by the poet: but such perfection is not an object of reasonable pursuit, because it is not one of possible attainment; and never yet did a passionate struggle after an absolutely unattainable object fail to be productive of misery to an individual, of madness and confusion to a people. As the inhabitants of those burning climates which lie beneath a tropical sun, sigh for the coolness of the mountain and the grove; so (all history instructs us) do nations which have basked for a time in the torrid blaze of an unmitigated liberty, too often call upon the shades of despotism, even of military despotism, to cover them,—
    “—O quis me gelidis in vallibus Hæmi
Sistat, et ingenti ramorum protegat umbra!”
a protection which blights while it shelters; which dwarfs the intellect and stunts the energies of man, but to which a wearied nation willingly resorts from intolerable heats and from perpetual danger of convulsion.
  2
  Our lot is happily cast in the temperate zone of freedom, the clime best suited to the development of the moral qualities of the human race, to the cultivation of their faculties, and to the security as well as the improvement of their virtues;—a clime not exempt, indeed, from variations of the elements, but variations which purify while they agitate the atmosphere that we breathe. Let us be sensible of the advantages which it is our happiness to enjoy. Let us guard with pious gratitude the flame of genuine liberty, that fire from heaven, of which our Constitution is the holy depository; and let us not, for the chance of rendering it more intense and more radiant, impair its purity or hazard its extinction!  3
 
 
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