The Ancien Regime
by Charles Kingsley

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by Charles Kingsley


The rules of the Royal Institution forbid (and wisely) religious or
political controversy. It was therefore impossible for me in these
Lectures, to say much which had to be said, in drawing a just and
complete picture of the Ancien Regime in France. The passages
inserted between brackets, which bear on religious matters, were
accordingly not spoken at the Royal Institution.

But more. It was impossible for me in these Lectures, to bring
forward as fully as I could have wished, the contrast between the
continental nations and England, whether now, or during the
eighteenth century. But that contrast cannot be too carefully
studied at the present moment. In proportion as it is seen and
understood, will the fear of revolution (if such exists) die out
among the wealthier classes; and the wish for it (if such exists)
among the poorer; and a large extension of the suffrage will be
looked on as--what it actually is--a safe and harmless concession to
the wishes--and, as I hold, to the just rights--of large portion of
the British nation.

There exists in Britain now, as far as I can see, no one of those
evils which brought about the French Revolution. There is no
widespread misery, and therefore no widespread discontent, among the
classes who live by hand-labour. The legislation of the last
generation has been steadily in favour of the poor, as against the
rich; and it is even more true now than it was in 1789, that--as
Arthur Young told the French mob which stopped his carriage--the
rich pay many taxes (over and above the poor-rates, a direct tax on
the capitalist in favour of the labourer) more than are paid by the
poor. "In England" (says M. de Tocqueville of even the eighteenth
century) "the poor man enjoyed the privilege of exemption from
taxation; in France, the rich." Equality before the law is as well-
nigh complete as it can be, where some are rich and others poor; and
the only privileged class, it sometimes seems to me, is the pauper,
who has neither the responsibility of self-government, nor the toil
of self-support.

A minority of malcontents, some justly, some unjustly, angry with
the present state of things, will always exist in this world. But a
majority of malcontents we shall never have, as long as the workmen
are allowed to keep untouched and unthreatened their rights of free
speech, free public meeting, free combination for all purposes which
do not provoke a breach of the peace. There may be (and probably
are) to be found in London and the large towns, some of those
revolutionary propagandists who have terrified and tormented
continental statesmen since the year 1815. But they are far fewer
in number than in 1848; far fewer still (I believe) than in 1831;
and their habits, notions, temper, whole mental organisation, is so
utterly alien to that of the average Englishman, that it is only the
sense of wrong which can make him take counsel with them, or make
common cause with them. Meanwhile, every man who is admitted to a
vote, is one more person withdrawn from the temptation to
disloyalty, and enlisted in maintaining the powers that be--when
they are in the wrong, as well as when they are in the right. For
every Englishman is by his nature conservative; slow to form an
opinion; cautious in putting it into effect; patient under evils
which seem irremediable; persevering in abolishing such as seem
remediable; and then only too ready to acquiesce in the earliest
practical result; to "rest and be thankful." His faults, as well as
his virtues, make him anti-revolutionary. He is generally too dull
to take in a great idea; and if he does take it in, often too
selfish to apply it to any interest save his own. But now and then,
when the sense of actual injury forces upon him a great idea, like
that of Free-trade or of Parliamentary Reform, he is indomitable,
however slow and patient, in translating his thought into fact: and
they will not be wise statesmen who resist his dogged determination.
If at this moment he demands an extension of the suffrage eagerly
and even violently, the wise statesman will give at once, gracefully
and generously, what the Englishman will certainly obtain one day,
if he has set his mind upon it. If, on the other hand, he asks for
it calmly, then the wise statesman (instead of mistaking English
reticence for apathy) will listen to his wishes all the more
readily; seeing in the moderation of the demand, the best possible
guarantee for moderation in the use of the thing demanded.