The English Government was not ill constituted, the defects more lately observed proceeding from the change of manners, and corruption of the times.
I am not ignorant that many honest and good men acknowledging these rights, and the care of our ancestors to preserve them, think they wanted wisdom rightly to proportionate the means to the end. 'Tis not enough, say they, for the general of an army to desire victory; he only can deserve praise, who has skill, industry, and courage to take the best measures of obtaining it. Neither is it enough for wise legislators to preserve liberty, and to erect such a government as may stand for a time; but to set such clear rules to those who are to put it in execution, that every man may know when they transgress; and appoint such means for restraining or punishing them, as may be used speedily, surely, and effectually, without danger to the publick. Sparta being thus constituted, we hardly find that, for more than eight hundred years, any king presumed to pass the limits prescribed by the law. If any Roman consul grew insolent, he might be reduced to order without blood, or danger to the publick; and no dictator ever usurped a power over liberty till the time of Sulla, when all things in the city were so changed, that the ancient foundations were become too narrow. In Venice the power of the duke is so circumscribed, that in 1300 years, no one except Falerio and Tiepoli, has dared to attempt anything against the laws: and they were immediately suppressed with little commotion in the city. On the other side, our law is so ambiguous, perplexed and intricate, that 'tis hard to know when 'tis broken. In all the publick contests we have had, men of good judgment and integrity have follow'd both parties. The means of transgressing and procuring partizans to make good by force the most notorious violations of liberty, have been so easy, that no prince who has endeavoured it, ever failed to get great numbers of followers, and to do infinite mischiefs before he could be removed. The nation has been brought to fight against those they had made to be what they were, upon the unequal terms of hazarding all against nothing. If they had success, they gained no more than was their own before, and which the law ought to have secured: whereas 'tis evident, that if at any one time the contrary had happened, the nation had been utterly enslaved; and no victory was ever gained without the loss of much noble and innocent blood.
To this I answer, that no right judgment can be given of human things, without a particular regard to the time in which they passed. We esteem Scipio, Hannibal, Pyrrhus, Alexander, Epaminondas and Caesar, to have been admirable commanders in war, because they had in a most eminent degree all the qualities that could make them so, and knew best how to employ the arms then in use according to the discipline of their times; and yet no man doubts, that if the most skilful of them could be raised from the grave, restored to the utmost vigour of mind and body, set at the head of the best armies he ever commanded, and placed upon the frontiers of France or Flanders, he would not know how to advance or retreat, nor by what means to take any of the places in those parts, as they are now fortified and defended; but would most certainly be beaten by any insignificant fellow with a small number of men, furnished with such arms as are now in use, and following the methods now practiced. Nay, the manner of marching, encamping, besieging, attacking, defending and fighting, is so much altered within the last threescore years, that no man observing the discipline that was then thought to be the best, could possibly defend himself against that which has been since found out, tho the terms are still the same. And if it be consider'd that political matters are subject to the same mutations (as certainly they are) it will be sufficient to excuse our ancestors, who suiting their government to the ages in which they lived, could neither foresee the changes that might happen in future generations, nor appoint remedies for the mischiefs they did not foresee.
They knew that the kings of several nations had been kept within the limits of the law, by the virtue and power of a great and brave nobility; and that no other way of supporting a mix'd monarchy had ever been known in the world, than by putting the balance into the hands of those who had the greatest interest in nations, and who by birth and estate enjoy'd greater advantages than kings could confer upon them for rewards of betraying their country. They knew that when the nobility was so great as not easily to be number'd, the little that was left to the king's disposal, was not sufficient to corrupt many; and if some might fall under the temptation, those who continued in their integrity, would easily be able to chastise them for deserting the publick cause, and by that means deter kings from endeavouring to seduce them from their duty. Whilst things continued in this posture, kings might safely be trusted (with the advice of their council) to confer the commands of the militia in towns and provinces upon the most eminent men in them: And whilst those kings were exercised in almost perpetual wars, and placed their glory in the greatness of the actions they achieved by the power and valour of their people, it was their interest always to chuse such as seemed best to deserve that honour. It was not to be imagined that through the weakness of some, and malice of others, those dignities should by degrees be turned into empty titles, and become the rewards of the greatest crimes, and the vilest services; or that the noblest of their descendants for want of them, should be brought under the name of commoners, and deprived of all privileges except such as were common to them with their grooms. Such a stupendous change being in process of time insensibly introduced, the foundations of that government which they had established, were removed, and the superstructure overthrown. The balance by which it subsisted was broken; and 'tis as impossible to restore it, as for most of those who at this day go under the name of noblemen, to perform the duties required from the ancient nobility of England. And tho there were a charm in the name, and those who have it, should be immediately filled with a spirit like to that which animated our ancestors, and endeavour to deserve the honors they possess, by such services to the country as they ought to have perform'd before they had them, they would not be able to accomplish it. They have neither the interest nor the estates required for so great a work. Those who have estates at a rack rent, have no dependents. Their tenants, when they have paid what is agreed, owe them nothing; and knowing they shall be turn'd out of their tenements, as soon as any other will give a little more, they look upon their lords as men who receive more from them than they confer upon them. This dependence being lost, the lords have only more money to spend or lay up than others, but no command of men; and can therefore neither protect the weak, nor curb the insolent. By this means all things have been brought into the hands of the king and the commoners, and there is nothing left to cement them, and to maintain the union. The perpetual jarrings we hear every day; the division of the nation into such factions as threaten us with ruin, and all the disorders that we see or fear, are the effects of this rupture. These things are not to be imputed to our original constitutions, but to those who have subverted them: And if they who by corrupting, changing, enervating and annihilating the nobility, which was the principal support of the ancient regular monarchy, have driven those who are truly noblemen into the same interest and name with the commons, and by that means increased a party which never was, and I think never can be united to the court, they are to answer for the consequences; and if they perish, their destruction is from themselves.
The inconveniences therefore proceed not from the institution, but from the innovation. The law was plain, but it has been industriously rendered perplex: They who were to have upheld it are overthrown. That which might have been easily performed when the people was armed, and had a great, strong, virtuous and powerful nobility to lead them, is made difficult, now they are disarmed, and that nobility abolished. Our ancestors may evidently appear, not only to have intended well, but to have taken a right course to accomplish what they intended. This had effect as long as the cause continued; and the only fault that can be ascribed to that which they established is, that it has not proved to be perpetual; which is no more than may be justly said of the best human constitutions that ever have been in the world. If we will be just to our ancestors, it will become us in our time rather to pursue what we know they intended, and by new constitutions to repair the breaches made upon the old, than to accuse them of the defects that will forever attend the actions of men. Taking our affairs at the worst, we shall soon find, that if we have the same spirit they had, we may easily restore our nation to its ancient liberty, dignity and happiness; and if we do not, the fault is owing to ourselves, and not to any want of virtue and wisdom in them.