Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
Principles of Reform
By Edward Augustus Freeman (1823–1892)
 
From Historical Essays

“STAND fast in the old paths”; “Respect the wisdom of your forefathers”; are the sayings which the dull Conservative throws in the teeth of Reformers. If his scholarship goes as far as a little ecclesiastical Greek, he perhaps adds [Greek]. All these are very good sayings; but it is to the Reformer and not to the Conservative that they belong. The Reformer obeys them; the Conservative tramples them under foot. The wisdom of our forefathers consisted in always making such changes as were needed at any particular time; we may freely add, in never making greater changes than were needed at that particular time. The old path was ever a path of reform; the ancient customs will ever be found to be far freer than these modern innovations which men whose notion of the good old times does not go back beyond Charles the First or Henry the Eighth fondly look upon as ancient. If a man will cast aside the prejudices of birth and party, if he will set himself free from the blind guidance of lawyers, he will soon learn how very modern indeed is the antiquity of the Tory. All his idols, game-laws, primogeniture, the hereditary king, the hereditary legislator, the sacred and mysterious nature of anything that is called “Royal Highness,” the standing army with its commands jobbed for money—all these venerable things are soon found to be but things of yesterday, by any man who looks with his eyes open into the true records of the immemorial—there are lands in which we may say the eternal—democracy of our race. The two grand idols of lawyers, the King and the Lord of the Manor, are soon found to be something which has not been from eternity, something which has crept in unawares, something which has gradually swallowed up the rights and the lands which once belonged to the people. Do I plead for any violent dispossession of either? There is no man from whose mind such a thought is further removed. Whatever exists by law should be changed only by law, and when things, however wrongful in their origin, have become rightful by long prescription, even lawful changes are not to be made hastily or lightly. But it is well to remind babblers that the things which they most worship, which they fondly believe to be ancient, are, in truth, innovations on an earlier state of things towards which every modern reform is in truth a step backwards. It is well to remind them that the prerogatives of the hereditary king, of the hereditary noble, of the local territorial potentate, can all of them be historically shown to be encroachments on the ancient rights of the people. It does not follow that anything is to be changed recklessly; it does not follow that anything need be changed at all. But it does follow that none of these things is so ancient and so sacred as to be beyond the reach of discussion, that none is so ancient and so sacred that it is wicked even to think of the possibility of changing it. I see no reason to meddle with our constitutional monarchy—that is, to make a change in the form of our executive government—because I hold that, while it has its good and its bad points, its good points overbalance the bad. But I hold that a man who thinks otherwise has as good a right to maintain his opinion, and to seek to compass his ends by lawful means, as if it were an opinion about school-boards or public-houses or the equalization of the county and borough franchise. I respect the kingly office as something ordained by law, and I see no need to alter the law which ordains it. But I can go no further. I cannot take on myself to condemn other nations, nor can I hasten to draw general inferences from single instances. But I do hold that the witness of history teaches us that, in changing a long-established form of executive government, whether it be the change of a kingdom into a commonwealth or of a commonwealth into a kingdom, the more gently and warily the work is done, the more likely it is to be lasting.
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