Letters on England HTML version

8. On The Parliament
The members of the English Parliament are fond of comparing themselves to the
old Romans.
Not long since Mr. Shippen opened a speech in the House of Commons with
these words, "The majesty of the people of England would be wounded." The
singularity of the expression occasioned a loud laugh; but this gentleman, so far
from being disconcerted, repeated the same words with a resolute tone of voice,
and the laugh ceased. In my opinion, the majesty of the people of England has
nothing in common with that of the people of Rome, much less is there any
affinity between their Governments. There is in London a senate, some of the
members whereof are accused (doubtless very unjustly) of selling their voices on
certain occasions, as was done in Rome; this is the only resemblance. Besides,
the two nations appear to me quite opposite in character, with regard both to
good and evil. The Romans never knew the dreadful folly of religious wars, an
abomination reserved for devout preachers of patience and humility. Marius and
Sylla, Caesar and Pompey, Anthony and Augustus, did not draw their swords
and set the world in a blaze merely to determine whether the flamen should wear
his shirt over his robe, or his robe over his shirt, or whether the sacred chickens
should eat and drink, or eat only, in order to take the augury. The English have
hanged one another by law, and cut one another to pieces in pitched battles, for
quarrels of as trifling a nature. The sects of the Episcopalians and Presbyterians
quite distracted these very serious heads for a time. But I fancy they will hardly
ever be so silly again, they seeming to be grown wiser at their own expense; and
I do not perceive the least inclination in them to murder one another merely about
syllogisms, as some zealots among them once did.
But here follows a more essential difference between Rome and England, which
gives the advantage entirely to the latter--viz., that the civil wars of Rome ended
in slavery, and those of the English in liberty. The English are the only people
upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by
resisting them; and who, by a series of struggles, have at last established that
wise Government where the Prince is all-powerful to do good, and, at the same
time, is restrained from committing evil; where the nobles are great without
insolence, though there are no vassals; and where the people share in the
Government without confusion.
The House of Lords and that of the Commons divide the legislative power under
the king, but the Romans had no such balance. The patricians and plebeians in
Rome were perpetually at variance, and there was no intermediate power to
reconcile them. The Roman senate, who were so unjustly, so criminally proud as
not to suffer the plebeians to share with them in anything, could find no other
artifice to keep the latter out of the administration than by employing them in
foreign wars. They considered the plebeians as a wild beast, whom it behoved