Part 1, Essay 2, Freedom of the Press

Part I, Essay II OF THE LIBERTY OF THE PRESS

I.II.1 NOTHING is more apt to surprise a foreigner, than the extreme liberty, which we enjoy in this country.
  • We can communicate whatever we please to the public.
  • We can openly censure every measure by the king or his ministers.
  • If the administration decides war, it is affirmed, that, either wilfully or ignorantly, they mistake the interests of the nation, and that peace, in the present situation of affairs, is infinitely preferable.
  • If the passion of the ministers lie towards peace, our political writers breathe only war and devastation, and represent the pacific conduct of the government as mean° and pusillanimous.°
  • No other government allows this liberty *7 in HOLLAND and VENICE, more than in FRANCE or SPAIN.
  • It naturally raises the question, How can GREAT BRITAIN alone enjoy this privilege?a
I.II.2 This liberty is derived from our mixed form of government.
  • It is neither wholly monarchical, nor wholly republican.
  • Politics has two extremes in government: liberty and slavery.
  • These commonly approach nearest to each other.
  • As you depart from the extremes, and mix a little of monarchy with liberty, the government becomes always the more free.
  • On the other hand, when you mix a little of liberty with monarchy, the yoke becomes always the more grievous and intolerable.b
  • In an absolute government like the French, the law, custom, and religion concur to make the people satisfied with their condition.
    • The monarch cannot be jealous against his subjects.
      • Therefore he is apt to indulge them in great liberties of speech and action.
  • In a republican government, such as that of HOLLAND, there is no magistrate so eminent as to give jealousy to the state.
  • There is no danger in entrusting the magistrates with large discretionary powers.
  • Though many advantages result from such powers, in preserving peace and order, yet they lay a considerable restraint on men’s actions, and make every private citizen pay a great respect to the government.
  • Thus the two extremes of absolute monarchy and of a republic, approach near to each other in some material circumstances.
  • In the first, the magistrate has no jealousy of the people.
  • In the second, the people have none of the magistrate.
  • Which want° of jealousy begets a mutual confidence and trust in both cases, and produces a species of liberty in monarchies, and of arbitrary power in republics.

I.II.3 In every government:
  • the means are most wide of each other, and
  • the mixtures of monarchy and liberty render the yoke either more easy or more grievous.
To prove this, I refer to TACITUS’ remark with regard to the ROMANS under the emperors.
  • That they neither could bear total slavery nor total liberty, Nec totam servitutem, nec totam libertatem pati possunt.*8
  • This remark was translated and applied to the ENGLISH by a celebrated poet in his lively description of queen ELIZABETH’S policy and government,

Et fit aimer son joug a l’Anglois indompté,
Qui ne peut ni servir, ni vivre en liberté,

HENRIADE, liv. I.*9
I.II.4 According to these remarks, we are to consider:
  • the ROMAN government under the emperors as a mixture of despotism and liberty, where the despotism prevailed and
  • the ENGLISH government as a mixture of the same kind, where the liberty predominates.

The consequences are conformable to the foregoing observation.

  • Those mixed forms of government beget a mutual watchfulness and jealousy.
    • The ROMAN emperors were the most frightful tyrants.
      • Their cruelty was chiefly excited by their jealousy.
  • All the great men of ROME impatiently bore the dominion of a family.
    • That family was no wise superior to their own, a little before.
  • On the other hand, as the republican part of the government prevails in ENGLAND’s government is , though with a great mixture of monarchy.
  • For its own preservation, it maintains a watchful jealousy over the magistrates, to:
  • remove all discretionary powers, and to secure every one’s life and fortune by general and inflexible laws.
  • No action must be deemed a crime but what the law has plainly determined to be such:
  • No crime must be imputed to a man but from a legal proof before his judges; and
  • even these judges must be his fellow-subjects, who are obliged, by their own interest, to have a watchful eye over the encroachments and violence of the ministers.
  • From these causes it proceeds, that there is as much liberty, and even, perhaps, licentiousness° in GREAT BRITAIN, as there were formerly slavery and tyranny in ROME.

 

I.II.5 These principles account for the great liberty of the press in these kingdoms, beyond what is indulged in any other government.c
  • It is apprehended, that arbitrary power would steal in upon us, were we not careful to prevent its progress, and were there not an easy method of conveying the alarm from one end of the kingdom to the other.
  • The spirit of the people must frequently be rouzed, to curb the court’s ambition of the court.
  • The dread of rouzing this spirit must be employed to prevent that ambition.
  • Nothing so effectual to this purpose as the liberty of the press, by which all the learning, wit, and genius of the nation may be employed on the side of freedom, and every one be animated° to its defence.
  • Therefore, as long as the republican part of our government can maintain itself against the monarchical, it will naturally be careful to keep the press open for its own preservation.

 

I.II.6 However, the unbounded liberty of the press is a difficult evil attending those mixed forms of government and is impossible to remedy.d

Notes for this chapter

 

[Hume nowhere discusses thematically the important question of how the various forms of government should be classified, but he touches on the question in many places. This essay suggests that governments are to be classified as republics, monarchies, or, as in the case of Great Britain, a mixture of republican and monarchical elements. Aristocracy and “pure” democracy would, in this classification, be types of republican government, as would the representative system that Hume describes in “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth.” The distinction in the present essay between liberty and despotism or slavery is not equivalent or even parallel to that between republics and monarchies. Hume maintains that freedom can prevail in monarchical government, just as despotism can prevail in republics.]
[Tacitus (A.D. 55?-120?) The Histories 1.16.28. The quotation comes at the end of a speech by Emperor Galba to Piso, upon adopting Piso as his successor: “For with us there is not, as among peoples where there are kings, a fixed house of rulers while all the rest are slaves, but you are going to rule over men who can endure neither complete slavery nor complete liberty” (Loeb translation by Clifford H. Moore).]
[François Marie Arouet (1694-1778), who wrote under the name Voltaire, first published La Henriade in 1723 under a different title and republished it, with alterations, under the present title in 1728. Its hero is Henry of Navarre, who became King Henry IV of France. The passage praising Elizabeth reads: “And she made her yoke dear to the unconquered English, who can neither serve nor live in liberty.”]Part I, Essay III