That comprehensive survey of the series of changes composing the history of our race, which is now familiar to every continental writer with any pretensions to philosophy, has taught to M. de Tocqueville, that the movement towards democracy dates from the dawn of modern civilization, and has continued steadily advancing from that time. Eight centuries ago, society was divided into barons and serfs: the barons being everything, the serfs nothing. At every succeeding epoch this inequality of condition is found to have somewhat abated; every century has done something considerable towards lowering the powerful and raising the low. Every step in civilization—every victory of intellect—every advancement in wealth—has multiplied the resources of the many; while the same causes, by their indirect agency, have frittered away the strength and relaxed the energy of the few. We now find ourselves in a condition of society which, compared with that whence we have emerged, might be termed equality; yet not only are the same levelling influences still at work, but their force is vastly augmented by new elements which the world never before saw. For the first time, the power and the habit of reading begins to permeate the hitherto inert mass. Reading is power: not only because it is knowledge, but still more because it is a means of communication—because, by the aid of it, not only do opinions and feelings spread to the multitude, but every individual who holds them knows that they are held by the multitude; which of itself suffices, if they continue to be held, to ensure their speedy predominance. The many, for the first time, have now learned the lesson, which, once learned, is never forgotten—that their strength, when they choose to exert it, is invincible. And, for the first time, they have learned to unite for their own objects, without waiting for any section of the aristocracy to place itself at their head. The capacity of cooperation for a common purpose, heretofore a monopolized instrument of power in the hands of the higher classes, is now a most formidable one in those of the lowest. Under these influences it is not surprising that society makes greater strides in ten years, towards the levelling of inequalities, than lately in a century, or formerly in three or four.
The most rational argument which we can conceive, for the exclusion of those who are called persons of no property, would be founded, not on inferiority of intellect, but on difference in apparent interest. All classes (it might be said) are in a most imperfect state of intelligence and knowledge; so much so, that they cannot be expected to be, and, as experience shows, hardly ever are, accessible to any views of their own ultimate interest which rest upon a train of reasoning. Since, then, it is certain that those who enjoy the franchise will exercise it in the manner dictated, not by their real and distant, but by their apparent and immediate interest, let us at least select, as the depositaries of power, those whose apparent and immediate interest is allied with the great principles on which society rests, the security of property, and the maintenance of the authority of law. These, we are sure, are safe in the hands of the possessors of property: an equal regard for them on the part of those without property would suppose a much higher degree of intelligence, since the latter benefit by them so much less obviously and directly, though not less really, than the former.
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We put it to those who call themselves Conservatives, whether, when the power in society is passing into the hands of the masses, they really think it possible to prevent the masses from making that power predominant as well in the government as elsewhere? The triumph of democracy, or, in other words, of the government of public opinion, does not depend upon the opinion of any individual or set of individuals that it ought to triumph, but upon the natural laws of the progress of wealth, upon the diffusion of reading, and the increase of the facilities of human intercourse. If Lord Kenyon or the Duke of Newcastle could stop these, they might accomplish something. There is no danger of the prevalence of democracy in Syria or Timbuctoo. But he must be a poor politician who does not know, that whatever is the growing power in society will force its way into the government, by fair means or foul. The distribution of constitutional power cannot long continue very different from that of real power, without a convulsion. Nor, if the institutions which impede the progress of democracy could be by any miracle preserved, could even they do more than render that progress a little slower. Were the Constitution of Great Britain to remain henceforth unaltered, we are not the less under the dominion, becoming every day more irresistible, of public opinion.