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TABLE OF CONTENTS OF William Hazlitt's Political Essays

Preface to Political Essays
"Talk of mobs as we will, the only true mob is that incorrigible mass of knaves and fools in every country, who never think at all, and who never feel for any one but themselves. I call any assembly of people a mob (be it the House of Lords or House of Commons) where each person's opinion on any question is governed by what others say of it, and by what he can get by it. ... To procure unanimity, to get men to act in corps, we must appeal for the most part to gross and obvious motives, to authority and passion, to their vices, not their virtues: we must discard plain truth and abstract justice as doubtful and inefficient pleas, retaining only the names and pretext as a convenient salvo for hypocrisy!"
The Marquis Wellesley
"It is curious, though somewhat painful, to see this lively little lord always in the full career of his subject, and never advancing a jot nearer; seeming to utter volumes in every word, and yet saying nothing ..."
Mr. Southey, Poet Laureat
"[As between Mr Scott and Mr Southey] it was finally determined, that as Mr Scott, though he would not allow himself to be the greatest, was at least the richest poet of the two, Mr Southey, who had most need of this post of honour and profit, should have it."
Mr. Southey's New Year Ode
"The Ode is in the ballad style, peculiar to Mr Southey and his poetical friends. It has something of the rustic simplicity of a country virgin on her first introduction at Duke's Place ... is a sort of methodistical rhapsody, chaunted by a gentleman-usher, and exhibits the irregular vigour of Jacobin enthusiasm suffering strange emasculation under the hands of a finical lord-chamberlain."
"I have no dislike whatever, private or public, to the Bourbons, except as they may be made the pretext for mischievous and impracticable schemes. At the same time I have not the slightest enthusiasm in their favour. I would not sacrifice the life or limb of a single individual to restore them. ... They are angry, not without reason, that a Corsican upstart has made the princes of Europe look like wax-work figures, and given a shock to the still life of kings. They wish to punish this unpardonable presumption by establishing an artificial balance of weakness throughout Europe, and by reducing humanity to the level of thrones. We may perhaps in time improve this principle of ricketty admiration to Eastern perfection, where every changeling is held scared, and that which is the disgrace of human intellect is hailed as the image of the Divinity!"
The Bourbons and Bonaparte
"... our politician wishes all this not to be left to their own free will, but that we should interfere. We can easily believe it; "it was ever the fault of our English nation" to wish to interfere with what did not concern them, for the very reason that they could interfere with comparative impunity. What is sport to them is death to others."
"This patriot and logician [Edward Sterling] in a letter in The Times of Friday, labours to stifle the most distant hope of peace in its birth. He lays down certain general principles which must for ever render all attempts to restore it vain and abortive."
On the Courier and Times
"... the true grounds of war, that we might spill our blood for our country, for our liberty, for our friends, for our kind; "but we do not remember, among these legitimate sources of the waste of human blood, that we were to shed it for a punctilio."
Illustrations of Vetus
There is a degree of shameless effrontery which disarms and baffles contempt by the shock which it gives to every feeling of moral rectitude or common decency; as there is a daring extravagance in absurdity which almost challenges our assent by confounding and setting at defiance every principle of human reasoning. The ribald paragraphs, which fill the columns of our daily papers, and disgrace the English language, afford too many examples of the former assertion ...
On The Late War
"We cannot express or opinion better than in the words of Mr Whitbread, 'that England had made Bonaparte, and he had undone himself,' He was the creature of the Pitt-school. Was the iron scourge which he has held over Europe put into his hands by the peace-party? Were the battles of Austerlitz and Jena--were the March to Vienna, the possession of Berlin, the invasion of Spain, the expedition to Russia, and the burning of Moscow, the consequences of the signing or the of the breaking of the treaty of Amiens?"
Prince Maurice's Parrot
"Where there is a will, there is a way. But there are some minds to which every flimsy pretext presents an insurmountable obstacle, where only the interests of justice and humanity are at stake. These persons are always impotent to save--powerful only to oppress and to betray."
Friends of Freedom
"... their [the French] present unqualified zeal, in the case of the Bourbons, is ominous. How long this sudden fit of gratitude, for deliverance from evils certainly brought upon them by their slowness to admit the remedy ... [It is a] quality of the French character. A people of this sort cannot be depended on for a moment. They are blown about like a weather-cock, with every breath of caprice or accident, and would cry vive l'emperéur to-morrow, with as much vivacity and as little feeling, as they do vive le roi to-day. They have no fixed principle of action. They are alike indifferent to every thing: their self-complacency supplies the place of all other advantages ... They will not relish the Bourbons long, if they remain at peace; and if they go to war, they will want a monarch who is also a general."
The Lay of the Laureate
"[Southey is a] pragmatical person--every sentiment or feeling that he has is nothing but the effervescence of incorrigible overweening self-opinion. He not only thinks whatever opinion he may hold for the time infallible, but that no other is even to be tolerated, and that none but knaves and fools can differ with him."
Owen's, A New View of Society
"[The doctrine of Universal Benevolence, the belief in the Omnipotence of Truth, and in the Perfectibility of Human Nature] is as old as society itself, and as the attempts to reform it by shewing what it ought to be, or be teaching that the good of the whole is the good of the individual -- an opinion by which fools and honest men have been sometimes deceived, but which has never yet taken in the knaves and knowing ones. ... it is not so easy or safe a task as he [Owen] imagined to makes fools wise and knaves honest; in short, to make mankind understand their own interests, or those who govern them care for any interest but their own."
The Speeches of Western and Broughan
"... the extravagance and luxury of the rich, war, taxes, &c. have a tendency to increase the distresses of the poor, or measures of retrenchment and reform to lighten those distresses -- to give carte-blanche to the government to squander the wealth, the blood, the happiness of the nation at pleasure; to grant jobs, places, pensions, sinecures, reversions without end, to grind down, to starve and impoverish the country with systematic impunity. ... It has been said by such person that taxes are not a burthen to the country; that the wealth collected in taxes returns through those who receive to those who pay them, only divided more equally and beneficially among all parties, just (they say) as the vapours and moisture of the earth collected in the clouds return to enrich the soil in soft and fertilizing showers. We shall set ourselves to shew that this is not true."
"He [Coleridge] is at cross-purposes with himself as well as others ... Doubt succeeds to doubt, clouds rolls over cloud, one paradox is driven out by another still greater, in endless succession. He is equally averse to the prejudices of the vulgar, the paradoxes of the learned, or the habitual convictions if his own mind. He moves in an unaccountable diagonal between truth and falsehood, sense and nonsense, sophistry and common-place, and only assents to any opinion when knows that all the reasons are against it. A matter of fact is abhorrent to his nature: the very air of truth repels him. ... All his notions are floating and unfixed, like what is feigned of the first form of things flying about in search of bodies to attach themselves to ... Innumerable evanescent thoughts dance before him, and dazzle his sight, like insects in the evening sun."
Coleridge (II)
"Mr. Coleridge addresses his Lay-Sermon "to the higher classes," ... [to] all persons of clerkly acquirements, that is, who can read and write. What wretched stuff is all this! We well remember a friend of his and ours saying, many years ago, on seeing a little shabby volume of Thomson's Seasons lying in the window of a solitary ale-house, at the top of a rock hanging over the British Channel, -- "That is true fame!" If he were to write fifty Lay-Sermons, he could not answer the inference from this one sentence, which is, that here are books that make their way wherever there are readers, and that there ought every where to be readers for such books!"
Coleridge (III)
"Again, Sir, I ask Mr. Coleridge, ... who is just going to ascend in a balloon, to offer me a seat in the parachute, only to throw me from the height of his career upon the ground, and dash me to pieces? Or again, what right has he to invite me to a feast of poets and philosophers, fruits and flowers intermixed, -- immortal fruits and amaranthine flowers, -- and then to tell me it is all vapour ..."
Bonaparte and Müller(9K)
Müller, the celebrated historian of Switzerland, wrote of his meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte: "The Emperor sat on a sofa ... The Emperor began to speak of the History of Switzerland ... He proceeded from the Swiss to the old Greek Constitution and History, to the Theory of Constitutions, to the complete diversity of those of Asia ... there is in his tone much firmness and vigour ... It was one of the most remarkable days of my life. By his genius and his disinterested goodness he has also conquered me."
On Modern Apostates(65K)
"... it is easier to sail with the stream, than to strive against it. The man who deliberates between his principle and the price of its sacrifice, is lost. ... It requires an effort of resolution, or at least obstinate prejudice, for a man to maintain his opinions at the expense of his interest."
Death of Joachim Murat(48K)
"Poor Murat! He well deserved his fate, but not at the hands from which he received it. Foolish fellow! He did not know that legitimacy keeps no faith with illegitimacy. At present, we suppose that point is pretty well settled."
Wat Tyler(24K)
"Mr Southey is a man incapable of reasoning connectedly on any subject. He has not strength of mind to see the whole of any question; he has not modesty to suspend his judgment till he has examined the grounds of it. He can comprehend but one idea at a time, and that is always an extreme one; because he will neither listen to, nor tolerate any thing than can disturb or moderate the petulance of his self-opinion.""
The Courier and The Wat Tyler(33K)
"Now a Magdalen is a person who has returned to her first habits and notions of virtue: but Mr Southey's laurelled Muse is at present in high court-keeping, and tosses up her nose at the very mention of reform Nor do we think Mr Southey has a fairer claim to the degree of respectability good-naturedly assigned him by his friends, that of a pickpocket or highwayman turned thief-taker or king's evidence; for he in fact belies his own character to blacken every honest principle, and takes the government reward for betraying better men than himself."
On Southey's Letter to William Smith
"Once admit that Mr Southey is always in the right, and every one else in the wrong, and all the rest follows. ... He is both judge and jury in his own cause; the sole standard of right and wrong. ... Whatever he does, is proper: whatever he thinks, is true and profound; "I, Robert Shallow, Esquire, have said it. ... however extreme in one opinion or another, he is alone in the right; and those who do not think as he does, and change their opinions as he does, and go the lengths that he does, first on one side and then on the other, are necessarily knaves and fools. Wherever he sits, is the head of the table. Truth and justice are always at his side. The wise and virtuous are always with him."
On the Spy System
"[We cannot agree, where a government has] reduced a country to a state of unparalleled distress, and consequent desperation, is a reason for giving carte blanche to the Government, and putting the people under military execution. At this rate, the worse the Government, the more firmly it ought to be rooted: the greater the abuse of confidence, the more blind and unlimited the confidence ought to be: and any administration need only bring a nation to the brink of ruin, in order to have a right to plunge it into the depths of slavery. ... [Is it better] to crush resistance to oppression, than to remove the causes of it."
On the Treatment of State Prisoners
"However edifying and attractive these kind of examples of simplicity, patience, and good behavior, taken from sheep, oxen, and asses, must be to the people, they are rather invidious, something worse than equivocal, as they relate to the designs and good-will of the Government towards them."
The Opposition and the Courier
"They [the opposition] speak against the renewal of the Income Tax; and this, in the opinion of some persons, is attacking what is more valuable than all our other institutions put together! For our own parts, our political confession of faith on this subject is short: we neither consider Lord Castlereagh as the Constitution, nor the The Courier as the Country."
Coleridge (IV)
"[On account of the Napoleonic Wars] ... this country has occasioned the death of 5,800,000 persons in Calabria, Russia, Poland, Germany, France, Spain, and Portugal. ... [Then quoting Coleridge from his work of 1798]:
'As if the soldier died without a wound;
As if the fibres of this godlike frame
Were gored without a pang; as if the wretch,
Who fell in battle, doing bloody deeds,
Passed off to Heaven, translated and not killed;
As though he had no wife to pine for him,
No God to judge him! Therefore, evil days
Are coming on us, O my countrymen!'"
On the Effects of War and Taxes
"... debt and taxes are a government machine, which diverts that portion of the wealth and industry of the people, which would otherwise be employed in supplying the wants and comforts ... of persons, to pamper the extravagance, vices, and artificial appetites of a single individual; and so on in proportion to the whole country. Every tax laid on in this manner, unnerves the arm of industry, is wrung from the bowels of want, and breaks the spirit of a nation, lessens the number of hands which are employed in useful labour, to seduce them into artificial, dependent, and precarious modes of subsistence, while the rich themselves find their reward for the indulgence of their indolence and voluptuousness ...""
Character of Mr Burke (I)
"Burke had the power of throwing true or false weights into the scales of political casuistry, but not firmness of mind (or, shall we say, honesty enough) to hold the balance. When he took a side, his vanity or his spleen more frequently gave the casting vote than his judgment; and the fieriness of his zeal was in exact proportion to the levity of his understanding, and the want of conscious sincerity."
Character of Mr Burke (II)
"There are two very different ends which a man of genius may propose to himself either in writing or speaking, and which will accordingly give birth to very different styles. He can have but one of these two objects; either to enrich or strengthen the mind; either to furnish us with new ideas, to lead the mind into new trains of thought, to which it was before unused, and which it was incapable of striking out for itself; or else to collect and embody what we already knew, to rivet our old impressions more deeply ..."
On Court Influence
"It is not interest alone, but prejudice or fashion that sways mankind. Opinion governs opinion. It is not merely what we can get by a certain line of conduct that we have to consider, but what others will think of it. ... Money, like other things, is worth no more than it will fetch. It is a passport into society: but if other things will answer the same purpose, as beauty, birth, wit, learning, desert in art or arms, dress, behavior, the want of wealth is not felt as a very severe privation."
On the Clerical Character
"This then is the secret of the alliance between Church and State --make a man a tool and a hypocrite in one respect, and he will make himself a slave and a pander in every other, that you can make it worth his while. ... Kings and priests are not such coxcombs or triflers as poets and philosophers. The two last are always squabbling about their share of reputation; the two first amicably decide the spoil."
What is the People?
"There is but a limited earth and a limited fertility to supply the demands both of Government and people; and what the one gains in the division of the spoil, beyond its average proportion, the other must needs go without. ... If the Government take a fourth of the produce of the poor man's labour, they will be rich, and he will be in want. If they can contrive to take one half of it by legal means, or by a stretch of arbitrary power, they will be just twice as rich, twice as insolent and tyrannical, and he will be twice as poor, twice as miserable and oppressed, in a mathematical ratio to the end of the chapter, that is, till the one can extort and the other endure no more."
On the Regal Character
"The desire which the most meritorious Princes have shewn to acquire information on matters of fact rather than of opinion, is partly because their prejudices will not suffer them to exercise their understandings freely on the most important speculative questions, partly from their jealousy of being dictated to on any point that admits of a question ..."
The Fudge Family of Paris
"[Thomas Moore] is neither a coxcomb nor a catspaw,--a whiffling turncoat, nor a thorough-paced tool, a mouthing sycophant, "A full solempne man," like Mr Wordsworth,--a whining monk, like Mr Southey,--a maudlin Methodistical lay-preacher, like Mr Coleridge ..."
Character of Lord Chatham
"... modesty, impartiality and candour, are not the virtues of a public speaker. He must be confident, inflexible, uncontrolable; overcoming all opposition by his ardour and impetuosity. We do not command others by sympathy with them, but by power, by passion, by will. Calm inquiry, sober truth, and speculative indifference will never carry any point. The passions are contagious; and we cannot contend against opposite passions with nothing but naked reason."
Character of Mr Fox
[A piece that lawyers could read with profit.] "His ideas quarrelled for utterance. So far from ever being at a loss for them, he was obliged rather to repress and rein them in, lest they should overwhelm and confound, instead of informing the understandings of his hearers."
Character of Mr Pitt
"... he was at liberty to lay whatever colouring of language he pleased; having no general principles, no comprehensive views of things, no moral habits of thinking, no system of action, where was nothing to hinder him from pursuing any particular purpose, by any means that offered; having never any plan, he could not be conflicted of inconsistency, and his own pride and obstinacy were the only rules of his conduct."
Pitt and Buonaparte
"Words on words finely arranged, and so dexterously consequent, that the whole bears the semblance of argument, and still keeps awake a sense of surprise; but when all is done, nothing rememberable has been said; no one philosophical remark, no one image, not even a pointed aphorism ... The mere man of talent hears him with admiration, the mere man of genius with contempt; the philosopher neither admires nor contemns."
An Examination of Mr Malthus's Doctrines
"This doctrine is false in fact and theory. ... the population confessedly never can or does exceed the means of subsistence in a literal sense ... the disciples of Mr Malthus ... have but this one idea in their heads; it comes in at every turn, and nothing can drive it out. ... Mr Malthus's arithmetical and geometrical ratios ... [to the exclusion and] the prevention of all timely reforms!"
On the Originality of Mr Malthus's Essay
"... Wallace [an earlier writer from whom Hazlitt claims Malthus took his notions] has here stated the argument against the progressive and ultimate amelioration of human society, from the sole principle of population. ... The argument is a solecism; but if Wallace showed his ingenuity in inventing it, Mr Malthus has not shown his judgment in adopting it."
Queries Relating to the Essay on Population
Hazlitt's sets forth his eighteen indictments of Malthus' work: for example, No. 6: "... the most extravagant conclusions, [that leads to the] throwing a suspicion and a stigma on all subordinate improvements or plans of reform ... Whether the stumbling-block thus thrown in the way of those who aimed at any amendment in social institutions does not obviously account for the alarm and opposition which Mr Malthus' work excited on the one hand, and for the cordiality and triumph with which it was hailed on the other?"
Affect on the Schemes of Utopian Improvement
"He [Malthus] contradicts the opinion of Mr Godwin that vice and misery are not the only checks to population, and ... after flatly denying that moral restraint has any effect at all, he modestly concludes by saying that it has had some, no doubt, but promises that it will never have a great deal. Yet in ... [his intended sequel], 'I shall lay considerable stress.' This kind of reasoning is enough to give one the headache. .. I cannot agree with Mr Malthus that they [Utopian schemes; though "false, sophistical, unfounded in the extreme"] would be bad, in proportion as they were good; that their excellence would be their ruin ..."
On the Application of Mr Malthus's Principle
"I shall not myself be so uncandid as not to confess, that I think the poor laws bad things; and that it would be well, if they could be got rid of, consistently with humanity and justice. ... The reason why I object to Mr Malthus's plan is, that it does not go to the root of the evil, or attack it in its principle, but its effects. He confounds the cause with the effect. ... why does Mr Malthus practise his demonstrations on the poor only? Why are they to have a perfect system of rights and duties prescribed to them? I do not see ... why it should be meat and drink to them, more than to others, to do the will of God. Mr Malthus's gospel is preached only to the poor!"

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[TOC -- Hazlitt's Page]
[Hazlitt's Works]
[General Essays]
[Round Table]
[Political Essays]
[The Spirit of the Age]
[The Plain Speaker]

2011 (2020)

Peter Landry