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I come now to a topic of controversy which, though applicable in itself to the circumstances of all nations, seems to owe its appearance upon the carpet solely if not principally to the form at present worn by the British Constitution: I mean the topic of influence: or as men are apt to term it as often as they feel themselves disposed to disapprove of its existence in any instance, corruption, or corruptive influence.

As the topic seems to owe its existence solely to that peculiar constitution, and is never agitated without a reference more or less explicit to that system, it may be as well in the discussion of the general question to take that particular example all along for the theme. Conception will by this means be facilitated, and the application of the inquiry to other constitutions will not be less easy than if the positions had been couched in the most general form of which they are susceptible.

The notions prevailing in Great Britain relative to this topic admitt of the four following modifications:

1. That the King ought to have no means whatever of influencing Parliament which it is possible to keep out of his hands.

2. That he ought to have some, but less than he has at present.

3. That he ought to have exactly as much as he has at present, neither more nor less.

4. That he ought to have more than at present. The result of my inquiries is most clearly and decidedly in favour of the first of these opinions. This is accordingly to the proof of which I shall here apply myself, and if I succeed in that the erroneousness of all the others will follow as a necessary consequence.

Definition of influence.

Influence is a result produced by power applied indirectly and to a purpose collateral to the obvious end of its institution.

The two parties into which the persons engaged in the discussion of this great question naturally resolve themselves employ different pretensions to prejudice the public in their favour: the adversaries of influence wrap themselves [in] their virtue: while its advocates applaud themselves for their wisdom. Of these two grounds the pg 420latter, as I shall take occasion to shew farther on, is the most advantageous. As to the question of virtue, being a quality depending solely on the personal quality of the individual disputant, it is a question I shall pass over as foreign to the subject and not worth debating in a public view. It is otherwise with the claim to wisdom: since this quality in the advocate reflects itself upon the cause and if admitted introduces a not unreasonable presumption in favour of the goodness of the cause. Seeing, according to my conception, to the bottom of this pretension, fully aware of all the ground it has to stand upon, and of the perfect insolidity of that ground, I pledge myself to shew that whatever predisposition there is in man to regard a leaning to the notion of the utility of influence as a mark of wisdom is the result not of strength of understanding but of weakness. That among those who have espoused or are ready to espouse the side I see reason to combat are to be found many endowed with considerable, nay even with uncommon and transcendent strength of understanding, is I dare believe very true. With respect to them all I contend for is, that it is not on this subject that that quality in them has happened to manifest itself, and that as the strongest understandings have their weak sides, so one of their weak sides happens to lie here.

I mention thus much at the outset solely in the view of suspending, if it be possible, the force of a prejudice which presses with no inconsiderable weight against the side I have seen reason to espouse: pledging myself that when the true question has been discussed I will grapple with the vainglorious impostor, desiring no quarter of him, and meaning to give him none.

In speaking of influence, I find it necessary at this early stage of the inquiry to distinguish between the only species I mean to combat as pernicious and another species which I regard as equally salutary and inevitable. By the former I mean the influence of will over will: by the latter the influence of understanding over understanding.a

The expediency of a man's suffering his understanding and thence his will to be influenced by the understanding of another assumes the pg 421judgment manifested to be called forth by the pursuit of the same interest or at least of an interest not at variance with that of the consulter.

The influence of understanding over understanding I have already observed is as salutary as it is unavoidable. In a nation of any magnitude, it is impossible that the great mass of the people should take a minute and constant cognizance of the state of its affairs. Their education furnishes them not with the necessary stock of preliminary knowledge. Their occupations admitt not of their making application of that knowledge if they possessed it. The obstacles at present subsisting are of no temporary nature but their duration is coæval with that of mankind.a

Unavoidable as is this species of influence, it is scarcely to be wished that it were otherwise. He who feels himself either incapable or unwilling to think for himself in relation to affairs in which he is called upon or admitted to take a part, must necessarily commit or give up that task to others. Those others will naturally be such as to his eyes appear better qualified than himself. It is equally natural that in a business like this he should in general think right. Public reputation is the guide which in such matters, if left free to follow the dictates of his understanding, he will naturally consult in preference. This, it is true, like every other human guide, is liable to prove a fallacious one. But it is at all times the least so of any that can be pointed out. Impostors, it is true, are at least as liable to start up in the line of politics as in any other. Happily, what is best is, that whatever advantage they may possess as yet tends in this line as in others to diminish every day.b Promptness and boldness may in this pg 422line as in others manifest a superiority—a preference—to a certain degree undue. But if these qualities are no certain mark of others which are requisite to the due discharge of public trusts, so neither do the former afford any just presumption of the want of the latter. They indicate at any rate a relish for the function which is no inessential condition to the faculties and dispositions upon which the due discharge of it depends.

Where the influence of understanding over understanding stands single or the rival influence of will over will stands suspended by the operation [of] particular causes, literary merit display'd in the line of political discussion has been shewn by experience to prove a very successful title to public confidence. Indeed how can it be learnt that a man has been occupying himself with success in the study of the public interest unless it has been made known, and how can his labours in that or any line be so effectually made known as by the publication of the works which are the fruits of them? In France, for pg 423example, the names of Bailly, Mirabeau, Target, Siáyás,1 and so many others as might be added to them, are sufficient to shew with what force this species of influence has exerted itself when cleared from the incumbrance of its sordid rival, and to how salutary a purpose.

Some men it is true may always be inclined to give the preference to the little hero whose person they have had access to than to the child of fame at a distance. But this disposition is far from being an universal one. In the eyes of most little characters, most great characters shew best at a distance. Besides, where the field of election is extensive, the influence of personal acquaintance can fill but a small proportion of it. Though each man were disposed to give the preference to him who in his estimation is the wisest man in his parish, it may be only one out of a great number of [parishes]2 that affords a candidate. As often as this is the case the influence of personal acquaintance is silent in every parish but one, and that of public reputation obtains exclusive entrance.a

Thus it is that the influence of understanding over understanding is favourable to felicity of choice. Where this prevails the mass of mankind considered in their political capacity of citizens, exerting in the capacity of electors or otherwise an influence over the conduct of political affairs, thus naturally resolve themselves into two classes. The first, composed of the privileged few, contains those who are in the habit of forming a judgment of their own on the questions that come before them: the other of those who judge as it were by proxy, shaping their conduct by the judgment of others of whose judgment on whatever grounds they entertain a favourable opinion.

In following upon this occasion public fame they do not only naturally but well. Public fame is the voice of the multitude: and howsoever particular persons may have an interest in exercising their judgment in a manner otherwise than to the public advantage, this can never be the case with the multitude, that is with the public itself. For as the public is composed only of individuals, and each individual is as great a part of the public as every other, duty and interest coincide, and the most consummate selfishness when thus left to exert itself without controul in every person concerned has pg 424every effect that could be wished for from the purest, the most consummate virtue.

When one man acts for many it may be justly required of him that he pursue as well as comprehend the interest of the whole. But when all act each for himself all that can be wished for is that each man pursue his own interest and either comprehend it himself or act by the judgment of one who, understanding better what is for his interest, is not in pursuit of any which clashes with that of his consulter.

If all men ranged themselves under one or other of these two classes, every thing would be as it were to be wished it should be— political affairs would be conducted upon the best footing on which it is possible they could be conducted consistently with the incurable imperfections attached to human nature.

But the influence of will on will comes upon the stage, and now the scene undergoes a material change and altogether for the worse.

When a man acts according to the dictates of his own will guided by the guidance of his own understanding he acts in favour of what appears to him to be most for his advantage. He is by the supposition at liberty so to do, the principle of self-love universally implanted and reigning with undisputed sway in human nature disposes him so to do, and while all men are at liberty to take their part, it is not to be wished for the sake of the species that it were otherwise.

When he acts according to the dictates of the will of another, it is as natural to presume he does not so much as act according to what appears to him to be most for his advantage. If he did, he would by the supposition act according to the dictates of his own will, which by the supposition he does not do. As my will is necessarily governed in preference by the prospect of my advantage, so is your will by the prospect of your advantage: if therefore in opposition to the dictates of my own will I follow those of your's, my interest is sacrificed to yours. If I conform to your will only because it is conformable to mine, the case does not come within the supposition: it is then only your understanding that I conform myself to and take for my guide. The influence of will on will necessarily supposes the sacrifice of one man's interest, of what that man supposes at least to be his interest, to that of another.

Will can only be acted on by motives. The possible motives by which a man's will can be acted upon are all for this purpose—in this point of view—resolvable into two sorts or classes: coercive, and attractive or alluring. To the first class belongs the fear of punishments and all kinds of undesirable events: to the other, the hope of what is good and desirable in life.

pg 425So long as the motives used to influence will are of the attractive kind only, there is no sacrifice of interests as between the parties concerned—there is no harm done. My will, after having been in this way modified by your's, remains as truly my will as it was before. No clear sacrifice is made by me. At the end of the account, if I have given up to you what appears to me an advantage, it is only because I have received one which appears to me a greater. Were there but two persons in the world, Adam and Eve, corruption in the political sense of the word could have no existence. If Adam, by the influence of his will over that of Eve, obtained any sacrifice of what appeared at the time to her to be her interest, it must have been by the application of motives not of an attractive but a coercive nature.

Thicken the scene, bring Cain and Abel1 upon the stage, and motives of either class become equally competent to the task. Let Adam act not for his own interest alone but for those of Cain and Abel, Eve, though by the influence of motives of the attractive class she can produce no sacrifice of Adam's own interest, may by her influence on him produce a sacrifice of the interests of Cain or Abel. By the corruptive effect of her seductive blandishments, she may prove a step mother to one of her sons, and make a father and guardian into a betrayer.

What apples were in the hands of the luckless mother of mankind,2 wealth and honours and other objects of general desire are in the hands of her descendant, King of England. A member of Parliament or other public trustee is to the public at large what Adam has just been supposed to be with relation to Cain and Abel. If the King of England sets himself to obtain for his will an influence over the will of the Member of Parliament, the King, if he is a man, will continually find himself exposed to the temptation of employing that influence to the obtaining from the Member a sacrifice of the interests of his constituents to the real or fancied interests of the Monarch. He will not only be exposed to that temptation, but he will yield to it, unless he finds that propensity counteracted by other propensities, motives, principles of superior force. For the same reason that the King will be apt to act this corruptive part, the Member will on his side be apt to act the corrupt one, and the interests of the constituents will accordingly be exposed to be made a continual sacrifice.

Of what nature then is this superior force which is all that the King and the Senator have to trust to, to guard them against corruption, and whence may it proceed?

pg 426To every application of the force of the motives of the coercive class, in more familiar language to every exercise of that species of power which is spoken of in contradistinction to influence, in a word to the exercise of every species of power which is recognised to be of a coercive nature, there may in the nature of things [be], and accordingly under the British Constitution actually is, opposed a check of a political nature, viz. the responsibility of the person invested with that power. The King, who alone is irresponsible, is allowed no share worth considering in it: and neither Judges nor any other persons who are admitted to the possession are left unresponsible.

With the power of applying motives of an attractive quality, the case is widely different. It is the particular character of this branch of power to be either in no degree or in a very imperfect degree subjectible to responsibility with respect to the employment it is put to. Acts of kindness every man may do to every man: consequently to any man at your choice. You may do them without condition: a fortiori upon such condition as you and he can agree on. The agreement whatever it be may, it is true, be proscribed by law: if discovered it may be punished: and you and he are therefore thus far comprised within the sphere of responsibility. But when there are but two parties concerned, and they both interested in concealment, how difficult is discovery? And a condition may be understood without being expressed, and as perfectly understood and punctually observed on both sides as if it were: and how can that be discovered which in any perceptible form never had existence?

The case is the same with that species of influence which, though equally constituted, equally with the other, by the faculty of disposing of the objects of desire, is nevertheless in its operation of a coercive nature. I mean that which consists in the faculty of withdrawing objects of that class whether they have been originally conferred by the possessor of this species of influence himself or by any other person. This faculty is a natural and necessary consequence of the faculty of conferring benefits where the continuance or renovation of the benefit is at the time of its being conferred made dependent upon the good pleasure of the author of the benefit or any other person.

Whoever in conferring a benefit subjects the duration of it to such contingency reserves to himself a power which though it come not within the description ordinarily given of coercive power, which though it come not under the notion ordinarily annexed to what is termed the power of punishment, may possess an influence altogether as coercive and efficacious.

In this way it is that one and the same object may and does furnish pg 427to any person who has the faculty of disposing of it an influence merely of the attractive kind or one of the coercive kind, according to the relation borne by the period at which the object is considered as being in possession to that at which the influence is considered as being exercised. If the object has not yet been in possession, the only influence which the disposal of it can confer is merely of the attractive kind: if it be already in possession at that period, the influence of attraction is at an end, but is converted into a stronger sort, that of the coercive kind.


a For distinction's sake I would gladly use instead of the former some such appellative as corrupting, corruptive or seductive influence: and so I should were it not [that] the choice of a name which stands already branded with a note of reprobation involves a begging of the question: an artifice of unfairness which discernment ought to teach us to detest and which conscious strength ought to dispose us to disdain.a

a It might even seem to imply that there might be instances where the influence of will had no such pernicious tendency, a proposition which the following argument undertakes to disprove.

a The progress of improvement in every line may open the door to political knowledge wider and wider, but at the last and at the best [the] proportion of the species that can come in for any considerable share will be comparatively but small. If on the one hand encrease of wealth gives encrease of leisure, on the other hand it encourages and brings along with it encrease of population which by dividing wealth diminishes each man's share.

Even if wealth were equally diffused and a competency universal in the measure sufficient to afford leisure enough for taking in the requisite stock of intellectual acquirements, the natural differences of temper and intellectual capacity would alone be sufficient to perpetuate the distinction between those who think for themselves and those who pin their judgment on the sleeve of others.

b It is not with political pretenders as with sharpers in private life. The artifices of the latter are almost infinite in their variety and are practised upon men in secret and alone where, debarred from the advantage of consultation and discussion, the strength of one man can yield no assistance to the weakness of another. Even these would succeed much less frequently than they do if the very instructive books which have been written to serve as warnings possessed that degree of circulation which might be given them. The artifices of political pretenders come under a few general heads and upon every political occasion that presents itself are sure to be a general and standing theme.

In a country arrived to such a pitch of civilisation and intelligence as Great Britain, it will be difficult to find any tolerably recent instance within the memory of any man now living where the people have sustained any real injury by any impostor of this class. Neither Oates nor even Sacheverel1 are at all likely ever to find a successor. If those who within our own times have undergone the comparison have done their own business to a certain degree, they have at the same time, or rather previously, done the business of the people.2 If they have been paid well, they have fought hard, and in a certain sense at least, deserved well. The question of secret affections, of inward integrity, a question in most instances so difficult to decide upon just grounds, is happily in instances like these of no sort of consequence. So long as the people are served, what matters it whether the principle that prompted the service was the pure pleasure of seeing them served, or some other motive? Where an individual in the capacity of informer, or prosecuter, or Judge, or subordinate Minister of Justice, contributes to the execution of a salutary law, who can know and who need care whether it were public spirit, or private enmity, or the prospect of gain, or any one of a thousand accidental motives that might be mentioned, contributed the greatest share towards engaging him in the service?

a N.B. This only regards Elections of Members for large districts—not the choice of the part to act with regard to petitioning &c. In which latter case personal acquaintance will have a greater influence.

The influence of personal acquaintance on the understanding appears greater than it is, by the influence which openness of action enables will to exercise over will.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1 Jean Sylvain Bailly (1736–93), Sieyás, Target, and Mirabeau were all leading members of the National Assembly.
Editor’s Note
2 MS 'candidates'.
Editor’s Note
1 In the Biblical account, Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve: see Genesis 4:1–2.
Editor’s Note
2 The apple traditionally represented the fruit of the tree of knowledge which was taken and eaten by Eve, 'the mother of all living', which she then gave to Adam, and led to them being driven out of the Garden of Eden: see Genesis 3.
Editor’s Note
1 Titus Oates (1649–1705) was principally responsible for fabricating the so-called Popish Plot of 1678 which aimed to assassinate Charles II, to offer the crown to his brother, James, and to establish a Jesuit government, and which led to the execution of some thirty-five persons supposedly implicated in it. Henry Sacheverell (1674?—1724) achieved fame as an apologist for the High Church and Tory party when impeached for sedition by the Whig-dominated House of Commons on account of a sermon preached at St Paul's on 5 November 1709, in which he defended the doctrine of non-resistance and argued that the Church was in danger from the Whig ministry. Following a celebrated trial, he was pronounced guilty by the House of Lords on 20 March 1710, but the sentence merely suspending him from preaching for three years was regarded as a triumph for him and the Tory cause.
Editor’s Note
2 In particular Bentham perhaps had in mind John Wilkes, who had posed as a champion of popular liberty against the arbitrary power of government.
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