Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
By Sydney Smith (17711845)
SOME members of Parliament, who mean to vote for ballot, in the fear of losing their seats, and who are desirous of reconciling to their conscience such an act of disloyalty to mankind, are fond of saying that ballot is harmless; that it will neither do the good nor the evil that is expected from it; and that the people may fairly be indulged in such an innocent piece of legislation. Never was such folly and madness as this: ballot will be the cause of interminable hatred and jealousy among the different orders of mankind; it will familiarise the English people to a long tenour of deceit; it will not answer its purpose of protecting the independent voter, and the people, exasperated and disappointed by the failure, will indemnify themselves by insisting upon unlimited suffrage. And then it is talked of as an experiment, as if men were talking of acids and alkalies, and the galvanic pile; as if Lord John could get on the hustings and say, Gentlemen, you see this ballot does not answer; do me the favour to give it up, and to allow yourselves to be replaced in the same situation as the ballot found you. Such, no doubt, is the history of nations and the march of human affairs; and in this way, the error of a sudden and foolish largess of power to the people might, no doubt, be easily retrieved! The most unpleasant of all bodily feelings is a cold sweat: nothing brings it on so surely as perilous nonsense in politics. I lose all warmth from the bodily frame when I hear the ballot talked of as an experiment.
I cannot at all understand what is meant by this indolent opinion. Votes are coerced now; if votes are free, will the elected be the same? if not, will the difference of the elected be unimportant? Will not the ballot stimulate the upper orders to fresh exertions? and is their increased jealousy and interference of no importance? If ballot, after all, be found to hold out a real protection to the voter, is universal lying of no importance? I can understand what is meant by calling ballot a great good, or a great evil; but, in the mighty contention for power which is raging in this country, to call it indifferent, appears to me extremely foolish in all those in whom it is not extremely dishonest.
If the ballot did succeed in enabling the lower order of voters to conquer their betters, so much the worse. In a town of 700 voters, the 300 most opulent and powerful (and therefore probably the best instructed) would make a much better choice than the remaining 400; and the ballot would, in that case, do more harm than good. In nineteen cases out of twenty, the most numerous party would be in the wrong. If this be the case, why give the franchise at all? why not confine it to the first division? because even with all the abuses that occur, and in spite of them, the great mass of the people are much more satisfied with having a vote occasionally controlled, than with having none. Many agree with their superiors, and therefore feel no control. Many are persuaded by their superiors, and not controlled. Some are indifferent which way they exercise the power, though they would not like to be utterly deprived of it. Some guzzle away their vote, some sell it, some brave their superiors, if they are threatened and controlled. The election, in different ways, is affected by the superior influence of the upper orders; and the great mass (occasionally and justly complaining) are, beyond all doubt, better pleased than if they had no votes at all. The lower orders always have it in their power to rebel against their superiors; and occasionally they will do so, and have done so, and occasionally and justly carried elections against gold, and birth, and education. But it is madness to make laws of society which attempt to shake off the great laws of nature. As long as men love bread, and mutton, and broadcloth, wealth, in a long series of years, must have enormous effects upon human affairs, and the strong box will beat the ballot box. Mr. Grote has both, but he miscalculates their respective powers. Mr. Grote knows the relative value of gold and silver; but by what moral rate of exchange is he able to tell us the relative values of liberty and truth?
It is hardly necessary to say anything about universal suffrage, as there is no act of folly or madness which it may not in the beginning produce. There would be the greatest risk that the monarchy, as at present constituted, the funded debt, the established church, titles, and hereditary peerage would give way before it. Many really honest men may wish for these changes; I know, or at least believe, that wheat and barley would grow if there were no archbishop of Canterbury, and domestic fowls would breed if our viscount Melbourne were again called Mr. Lamb; but they have stronger nerves than I have who would venture to bring these changes about. So few nations have been free, it is so difficult to guard freedom from kings, and mobs, and patriotic gentlemen; and we are in such a very tolerable state of happiness in England, that I think such changes would be very rash; and I have an utter mistrust in the sagacity and penetration of political reasoners who pretend to foresee all the consequences to which they would give birth. When I speak of the tolerable state of happiness in which we live in England, I do not speak merely of nobles, squires, and canons of St. Pauls, but of drivers of coaches, clerks in offices, carpenters, blacksmiths, butchers, and bakers, and most men who do not marry upon nothing, and become burdened with large families before they have arrived at years of maturity. The earth is not sufficiently fertile for this:
After all, the great art in politics and war is to choose a good position for making a stand. The Duke of Wellington examined and fortified the lines of Torres Vedras a year before he had any occasion to make use of them, and he had previously marked out Waterloo as the probable scene of some future exploit. The people seem to be hurrying on through all the well-known steps to anarchy; they must be stopped at some pass or another: the first is the best and most easily defended. The people have a right to ballot or to anything else which will make them happy; and they have a right to nothing which will make them unhappy. They are the best judges of their immediate gratifications, and the worst judges of what would best conduce to their interests for a series of years. Most earnestly and conscientiously wishing their good, I say, NO BALLOT!