Gateway to the Classics: Conversations on Government by Jane Marcet
Conversations on Government by  Jane Marcet

On Despotic Sovereigns

W ILLY had, at this time, a week's holidays, so that he was able to carry on his conversations with his Mother without interruption. He was very eager to hear about despotic sovereigns; and his first question was, whether a sovereign was like a king?

His Mother told him, that sovereign was a name given to any one who governed a country: thus, our King was Sovereign of Great Britain and Ireland; the Emperor of Russia was Sovereign of that country; the Sultan was Sovereign of Turkey, and the Grand Duke of Tuscany Sovereign in his dominions. "But," said she, "though these are all sovereigns, they have not only different titles, but govern in a very different manner. The sovereign in a despotic government is called an absolute monarch, because his power is absolute or uncontrolled, and he makes what laws he chooses, without consulting his people; indeed, he very often reigns without any law but his own will."

"Oh, dear, I should not like to live in such a country, it would be so much like a school:  I dare say there is a great deal of flogging there?"

"Yes, indeed, Willy; but it is much worse than a school; for if the master governed the school badly the parents would take his scholars away, and the master would be ruined. The master is thus answerable to the parents of the children, and that makes him careful how he governs them; but an absolute monarch is answerable to no one, and he may do just what he pleases."

"And do the people learn a great deal in those countries where there is so much flogging?"

"Oh no, quite the contrary: a despotic prince does not get the people flogged in order to make them learn, but in order to oblige them to do whatever he commands, let it be ever so foolish or so wicked. He likes his subjects to be ignorant because he knows that if they became learned and wise, and understood how to make laws, they would no longer obey him, but insist on having a better government, and assist in making the laws themselves."

"Well, but, Mamma, as an absolute monarch can do whatever he pleases, suppose that he happened to be a very good man, and very clever too. He would understand how to make laws better than the people themselves."

"That is sometimes the case," replied she. "The King of Prussia, for instance, is an absolute prince; but, instead of wishing to keep his subjects in ignorance, he has established very excellent schools throughout his dominions, and obliges the people to send their children to them; and he has done still more, for he has given his subjects laws which will, at least, secure them a good government during his life. But it very seldom happens that a despotic prince is either good or wise: he is brought up from his cradle as a spoilt child by all the people about him; flattered, coaxed, and indulged in his youth, by those who hope to be his favourites when he grows up, and reigns. But even should his government be wise and just, there is no certainty of its lasting, and when he dies his successor may be quite the contrary. There was, some years ago, an Emperor of Russia called Alexander, whose mother had taken such pains with his education, that when he came to the throne, he governed the people better than they had ever been governed before. A celebrated lady once said to him, that, for the first time in her life, he made her think, that a despotic government was as good as a representative one."

"What is a representative government, Mamma?"

"It is a government in which the people send men to represent them, to help to make the laws, as they do in England and in France, and many other countries. But to return to my story; the Emperor Alexander answered, it is but a lucky chance that I govern well, and those who succeed me may do just the contrary. Unfortunately he was himself, a few years afterwards, persuaded by some bad people to alter his manner of governing, and the liberty he had allowed his subjects was exchanged for severity and hardships. So you see, Willy, how little the good conduct of despotic sovereigns can be depended on."

"Oh yes," said Willy; "besides, Mamma, if a despotic sovereign wished ever so much to make laws that would please his subjects, how could he know what laws they would like? for they do not send him representatives to consult, as they do in England; and he cannot go about to every man to ask him."

"No, indeed," replied his mother; "but despotic sovereigns in general think only of pleasing themselves, and care very little whether the people like their laws or not."

"Oh, what a shame!" exclaimed Will; "for a despotic sovereign is but one man, and the people are every body. Can any thing be so unjust as to make laws to please one man, instead of pleasing hundreds and thousands of men?"

"Very true, Willy; but an absolute monarch fancies that those hundreds and thousands of men whom he governs are all made to obey him."

"Then they must be quite foolish to think themselves so much better and greater than other people."

"They have been taught to think themselves above all other men from their childhood, it is therefore no wonder they should believe it."

"It does not seem to me to be fair that men should be obliged to obey laws, they have not helped to make; I do not mean that every man should do so, but that they should choose people to represent them: I think it would be better to have no government at all than a despotic one."

Willy's mother did not agree with him on this point; she thought a despotic government better than none at all; for if there were no government, all the strong men might oppress the weak, the poor rob the rich, and there would be no safety for any one, either in person or property.

"That is true," said Willy, "it would be just like the Land without Laws,  where they were all so unhappy."

"A despotic sovereign," said his Mother, "could not have done so much harm to his subjects as the people did there to one another. Complete liberty is a bad thing, for men will be sure to injure each other. The right and proper liberty is, that men should do whatever they like, provided it does no harm to others."

"Well, Mamma, I think our government in England much the best; for here we may do what is right, and not what is wrong; and the King consults with the people about making the laws, and is not a despotic sovereign."

"In one point of view, Willy, our king is as absolute as any prince, for the law of the land declares, that the King can do no wrong."

"Why, then," cried Willy with astonishment, "he may do whatever he chooses, and no tyrant can do more than that! Then, if he is angry with a man, may he order his head to be cut off without being tried and condemned in a court of justice?"

"He may order it, but no one would obey him, because the man who cut off the head would be himself tried for it, condemned, and put to death; for no man is bound to obey the King, if he orders him to do any thing that is contrary to the laws.

"When the law says, that the King can do no wrong, the meaning is, that his ministers, or whoever he orders to do any thing wrong, are liable to be punished if they obey him; this is called the responsibility of ministers, or, in other words, that they are accountable for whatever they do, and that it is no excuse for them to say the King commanded it.

"So when the people think that the King does any thing wrong in governing, instead of blaming him they blame his ministers; and the House of Commons, as the representative of the people, send a petition to the King to beg him to turn away the ministers who have advised him to do what they disapprove; and very often the King is obliged to do so, though he may know he is more in fault than they are.

"There are many things that the King may do without consulting Parliament, and these privileges are called the King's prerogative; for instance, he may make war whenever he pleases."

Willy expressed great surprise at this; for he thought the people should be asked whether they thought it right to go to war or not.

"Do you recollect what the King is obliged to do to support the expenses of a war, Willy?"

"Oh yes, he is obliged to borrow money, and to ask the Parliament to increase his allowance, to be able to pay the interest of the money he borrows."

"Well, then, if the Parliament did not like the war, they might refuse to increase his allowance. Then the people would not lend him money, because he could not pay them interest for it; and so he would not be able to pay the soldiers and sailors, and could not go on with the war."

"Then I dare say, Mamma, the King takes care before he goes to war to find out whether the Parliament like it or not, for fear they should refuse to increase his allowance."

"That certainly is a check," said his Mother. "Another branch of the King's prerogative is that of dissolving the Parliament; that is, he may send all the members away, and reign without them."

"Indeed!" exclaimed Willy, with a look of alarm; "and if the King chose to send his Parliament away, would he not be a despotic sovereign?" Then, after a little reflection, he added, "But how could he get money, Mamma, if there was no Parliament to give him his allowance?"

"That," replied his Mother, "is the very thing which prevents our kings from governing without a Parliament; for the King cannot oblige the people to pay taxes without the consent of Parliament, and therefore could get no allowance."

"Then it is but a sort of sham absolute power that our king has, after all," said Willy; "for, if he can do no wrong himself; he cannot make other people do wrong for him; and if he declares war, and that Parliament don't like it, and if he tries to govern without a Parliament, he can get no money; and so he cannot do any of these things."

"Our kings, however, have sometimes made the attempt to reign without a Parliament," said his Mother. "There was once a king who was so much displeased with his Parliament, because they would not allow him to govern just as he chose, that he dissolved it and assembled a new one, hoping that the people would choose representatives who would be more willing to do what he wished."

"I think that was rather foolish of the King, Mamma; for the people would be so afraid of being despotically governed, that they would choose representatives who would take more care than before, that they should not be so."

"That was exactly the case," replied his Mother. "The oftener the King dissolved his Parliament, the more difficult he found it to manage the new one: till at last the King and the Parliament came to a downright quarrel, and there was a civil war."

"Oh!" exclaimed Willy, "I know now what king you are talking of, Mamma. It is Charles the First, whom I read about in 'Little Arthur's History;' and, after fighting a great many battles, at last, poor man! they cut off his head."

"Yes, it was Charles the First," replied his Mother; "and you may well say poor man! He was to be pitied as a man; for, though he was a bad king, he behaved with great kindness to his family, and I dare say would have been a good sort of man if he had been a private gentleman instead of a king; but he was unfortunately brought up to think that he might govern as he liked, and that it was the people who were doing wrong when they resisted him."

Willy inquired of his Mother how long the Parliament lasted, if the King did not dissolve it. She replied, "Seven years; but it seldom is so long, as the King generally dissolves on the sixth year, if no circumstance happens to induce him to dissolve it sooner. Then," added she, "when the King dies, the Parliament is dissolved of itself, and the new King calls together a new Parliament.

"But, Willy, what a length of time we have been talking," said his Mother, looking at her watch: "now you must go out, and to-morrow I will tell you of another sort of government."

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