There are, we believe, few real thinkers, of whatever party, who have not reflected with some anxiety upon the views which have become current of late, respecting the irresistible tendency of modern society towards democracy. The sure, and now no longer slow, advance, by which the classes hitherto in the ascendant are merging into the common mass, and all other forces giving way before the power of mere numbers, is well calculated to inspire uneasiness, even in those to whom democracy presents nothing alarming. It is not the uncontrolled ascendancy of popular power, but of any power, which is formidable. There is no one power in society, or capable of being constituted in it, of which the influences do not become mischievous as soon as it reigns uncontrolled—as soon as it becomes exempted from any necessity of being in the right, by being able to make its mere will prevail, without the condition of a previous struggle. To render its ascendancy safe, it must be fitted with correctives and counteractives, possessing the qualities opposite to its characteristic defects. Now, the defects to which the government of numbers, whether in the pure American or in the mixed English form, is most liable, are precisely those of a public, as compared with an administration. Want of appreciation of distant objects and remote consequences; where an object is desired, want both of an adequate sense of practical difficulties, and of the sagacity necessary for eluding them; disregard of traditions, and of maxims sanctioned by experience; an undervaluing of the importance of fixed rules, when immediate purposes require a departure from them—these are among the acknowledged dangers of popular government: and there is the still greater, though less recognised, danger, of being ruled by a spirit of suspicious and intolerant mediocrity. Taking these things into consideration, and also the progressive decline of the existing checks and counterpoises, and the little probability there is that the influence of mere wealth, still less of birth, will be sufficient hereafter to restrain the tendencies of the growing power by mere passive resistance; we do not think that a nation whose historical give it any choice, could select a fitter basis upon which to ground the counterbalancing power in the State, than the principle of the French Upper House. The defects of are, in substance, those of unskilled politicians. The mode of raising a power most competent to their correction, would be an organization and combination of the skilled. History affords the example of a government carried on for centuries with the greatest consistency of purpose, and the highest skill and talent, ever realized in public affairs; and it was constituted on this very principle. The Roman Senate was a Senate for life, composed of all who had filled high offices in the State, and were not disqualified by a public note of disgrace. The faults of the Roman policy were in its ends; which, however, were those of all the of the ancient world. Its choice of means was consummate. This government, and others distantly approaching to it, have given to aristocracy all the credit which it has obtained for constancy and wisdom. A Senate of some such description, composed of persons no longer young, and whose reputation is already gained, will necessarily lean to the Conservative side, but not with the blind, merely instinctive spirit of conservatism, generated by mere wealth or social importance unearned by previous labour. Such a body would secure a due hearing and a reasonable regard for precedent and established rule. It would disarm jealousy, by its freedom from any class interest, and while it never could become the really predominant power in the State, still, since its position would be the consequence of recognised merit and actual services to the public, it would have as much personal influence, and excite as little hostility, as is compatible with resisting in any degree the tendencies of the really strongest power.
It is needless to dwell on differences in opinion between Mill and Tocqueville, since the dissimilarities are less important than what the men shared in common, Mill saw Tocqueville as he saw himself—a leader in the great transition of thought between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and a contributor of social insights and ideas to those who desired for Europe a new liberal age. In his he described how Tocqueville more effectively than any other contemporary depicted the virtues of democracy as well as its perils. He admitted that his French friend reinforced his own fears about the political tyranny of popular opinion and influenced him in shifting his ideal from that of pure democracy to its modified form later presented in Both men observed in America harsh forms of popular tyranny, not in laws, but in what Mill called the dispensing power over all law. “The people of Massachusetts,” he remarked, “passed no law prohibiting Roman Catholic schools, or exempting Protestants from the penalties of incendiarism; they contented themselves with burning the Ursuline convent to the ground, aware that no jury would be found to redress the injury” (177). In these cases popular tyranny was expressed not merely in the action of mobs, incited by the passions of religion, party, or race, but by the inability of the administrative and judicial organs to work effectively owing to their direct dependence on popular opinion.
Generation Why? | by Zadie Smith | The New York …
comprise the main body of Mill’s writings specifically on political and social theory, including and his most valued contributions to this area. Given his abiding interest in the application of theory to experience, and the testing of theory by experience, and given also his view of the “consensus” that obtains in social states, it is impossible to isolate essays that deal only with political and social theory, or to include in one volume (or even in several) all his essays that touch on such matters. Perhaps the most obviously necessary exclusions in a volume of this kind are the final Books of the and the both of which are essential to an understanding of Mill’s ideas. The decision to include or exclude particular essays is in large measure a pragmatic one, and students of Mill’s political and social thought will want to refer, to some of his essays and newspaper writings on economics, on particular political and social events, and on law and equality, which will be found in other volumes of the The main characteristics determining the selection of the essays in this volume are the focus on abiding and theoretical questions, and thematic interdependence.