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Jane Marcet

On Republics

W ILLY wondered much what was the sort of government his Mother was going to explain to him; for she had told him about the sovereigns who reigned with despotic power, and about the government of England, where the power was limited by the Parliament. He could not conceive that there could be any other form of government, and was much astonished when his Mother said,

"In the government I am going to tell you about to-day, Willy, there is no sovereign, neither king, nor emperor, nor sultan."

"Then, Mamma," cried Willy, with astonishment, "how can there be any government if there is nobody to command, and punish the people who do not obey the laws?"

"It is the people themselves who command. I do not mean that every man governs, but they choose representatives, not only to make the laws, but to execute them, or, in other words, to govern."

"Something like our Parliament, I suppose?"

"Like our House of Commons, at least; but in republics, where the people govern, they are very fond of equality, and few republics have any noblemen."

Willy thought that very fair; yet, after a little reflection, he observed, that "if the people were all to be equal, they must all work alike to gain their livelihood; and then nobody would have leisure to study and become learned, and write clever books to teach the people."

"That would not do at all, Willy. When I talked of equality, I meant equality of rank and equality of rights. The noblemen in England have, you know, titles and a higher rank, than we commoners. Then they have a right to sit in Parliament, which commoners have not, unless they are chosen to represent the people. Now, in republics, there are no class of men who have privileges or rights different from the rest of the people. But wealth is a different thing. Men cannot be equal in wealth, any more than they can be equal in goodness or in abilities. A man who is industrious and clever and prudent will gain money and grow rich; and that is the natural reward of his industry: while a man who is idle and foolish will gain nothing, but spend or lose the money he has; and so he will become poor; that is the natural punishment of his idleness and folly. When I said that in most republics men were equal, I also said equal in rank and rights."

"It is like liberty, Mamma," said Willy. "As there is a right and a wrong liberty, so there is a right and a wrong equality. People must have liberty to do a great many things—that is the right liberty; but they must not have liberty to do every thing,—that would be the wrong liberty: and people must be equal in many things—that is the right equality; but they must not be equal in every thing—that is the wrong equality."

"Very well, Willy; but do you think you could tell me what are the things in which men should be free, or have liberty to do as they liked, and what are the things in which they ought not to be free?"

"Oh yes; they should be free to do what they like, provided it does not hurt other people; for it would not be right to allow them to hurt other people in order to please themselves."

"Now, can you tell in what things men should be equal, and in what things they cannot be equal?"

Willy answered, that "people should be equal in rank, and have equal rights; but that they could not have equal wealth, because they were not all equally industrious or equally clever."

"You must, however, remember, Willy, that we are now talking of the liberty of a republic. In England we have a sovereign and nobles, who have rank and privileges superior to that of the people; but we are so happy, and so well governed, that it would be very foolish to wish to change. There was once a republic in Greece called Sparta, where the people were foolish enough to think that they ought to be equal in every thing. So the children were all brought up exactly alike, at public schools. Then the people were obliged to eat their meals together at public tables, where they all ate of the same dishes."

"Oh, but Mamma, how could they contrive to make the idle men work as hard as those that were industrious?"

"That was impossible; so they determined that none of them should work, but that they should all be soldiers, in order to defend their country from enemies."

"But then who was to work for them?" inquired Willy; "for somebody must do the household work, and make their clothes, and plough their fields?"

"This is the way they managed: whenever they went to war, and took any prisoners, they obliged them to work for them. The prisoners cultivated their fields, built their houses, made their clothes, cooked their dinners, and, in short, became their servants, or, rather, their slaves; for, instead of being at liberty to leave their masters if they were ill used, they were obliged to stay with them, and worked without receiving wages."

"There was no equality there, I am sure," said Willy; "was not that very wrong?"

"Certainly," replied his mother: "in order to make themselves equal, they committed the greatest injustice on others."

"They were foolish people, Mamma, and did not know the difference between the right equality and the wrong one."

"True," said his mother; "for it is very wrong to make men slaves, whether you use them well or ill, and very wicked to treat them cruelly. This republic of Sparta existed a great many years ago; you will read about it in the ancient history, when you are old enough to understand it."