Chapter 3: The Principle of Democracy

THERE is no great share of probity necessary to support a monarchical or despotic government:

  • the force of laws, in one, and the prince’s arm, in the other, are sufficient to direct and maintain the whole:
  • but, in a popular state, one spring more is necessary, namely, virtue.

What I have here advanced is confirmed by the unanimous testimony of historians, and is extremely agreeable to the nature of things.

  • In a monarchy, where he, who commands the execution of the laws, generally thinks himself above them, there is less need of virtue than in a popular government, where the person, entrusted with the execution of the laws, is sensible of his being subject to their direction.

Clear it is, also, that a monarch, who, through bad advice or indolence, ceases to enforce the execution of the laws, may easily repair the evil; he has only to follow other advice, or to shake off this indolence.

  • But when, in a popular government, there is a suspension of the laws, (as this can proceed only from the corruption of the republic,) the state is certainly undone.

A very droll spectacle it was, in the last century, to behold the impotent efforts of the English towards the establishment of democracy.

  • As they, who had a share in the direction of public affairs, were void of virtue; as their ambition was enflamed by [26] the success of the most daring of their members; as the prevailing parties were successively animated by the spirit of faction; the government was continually changing; the people, amazed at so many revolutions, in vain attempted to erect a commonwealth.
  • At length, when the country had undergone the most violent shocks, they were obliged to have recourse to the very government which they had so wantonly proscribed.

When Sylla thought of restoring Rome to her liberty, this unhappy city was incapable of that blessing.

  • She had only the feeble remains of virtue, which were continually diminishing: instead of being roused out of her lethargy by Cæsar, Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, Nero, Domitian, she riveted every day her chains; if she struck some blows, her aim was at the tyrant, but not at the usurpation.

The politic Greeks, who lived under a popular government, knew no other support than virtue: the modern inhabitants of that country are entirely taken up with manufacture, commerce, finances, opulence, and luxury.

When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community.

  • The objects of their desires are changed; what they were fond of before is become indifferent; they were free while under the restraint of laws, but they would fain now be free to act against law; and, as each citizen is like a slave who has run away from his master, what was a maxim of equity, he calls rigour; what was a rule of action, he stiles constraint; and to precaution he gives the name of fear.
  • Frugality, and not the thirst of gain, now passes for avarice.
  • Formerly, the wealth of individuals constituted the public treasure, [27] but now this is become the patrimony of private persons. The members of the commonwealth riot on the public spoils, and its strength is only the power of a few and the licentiousness of many.

Athens was possessed of the same number of forces, when she triumphed so gloriously, and when, with so much infamy, she was inslaved.

  • She had 20,000 citizens§ when she defended the Greeks against the Persians, when she contended for empire with Sparta, and invaded Sicily.
  • She had 20,000 when Demetrius Phalereus numbered them*, as slaves are told by the head in a market-place.
  • When Philip attempted to lord it over Greece, and appeared at the gates of Athens, she had even then lost nothing but time.
  • We may see, in Demosthenes, how difficult it was to awake her: she dreaded Philip, not as the enemy of her liberty, but of her pleasures.
  • This famous city, which had withstood so many defeats, and, after having been so often destroyed, had as often risen out of her ashes, was overthrown at Chæronea, and, at one blow, deprived of all hopes of resource.
  • What does it avail her, that Philip sends back her prisoners, if he does not return her men? It was ever after as easy to triumph over the Athenian forces as it had been difficult to subdue her virtue.

How was it possible for Carthage to maintain her ground?

  • When Hannibal, upon his being made prætor, endeavoured to hinder the magistrates from plundering the republic, did not they complain of him to the Romans?
  • Wretches, who would fain be citizens without a city, and beholden for their [28] riches to their very destroyers!
  • Rome soon insisted upon having 300 of their principal citizens as hostages
  • She obliged them next to surrender their arms and ships; and then she declared war.
  • From the desperate efforts of this defenceless city, one may judge of what she might have performed in her full vigour, and assisted by virtue.