Page images

of the several forces operating,—the various parties existing 'in the Assembly. Some one or two votes will occasionally be passed, by a majority—perhaps by no very large majority,—in utter defiance of the sentiments of the rest . But in the long run—in any course of enactments or proceedings,—some degree of influence will seldom fail to be exercised by those who are in a minority. This influence, again, will not always correspond, in kind, and in degree, with what takes place in Mechanics. For instance, in the material world, the impulses which keep a body motionless must be exactly opposite, and exactly balanced; but in human affairs, it will often happen that there may be a considerable majority in favour of taking some step, or making some enactment, yet a disagreement as to some details will give a preponderance to a smaller party who are against any such step. When the majority, for example, of a garrison are disposed to make an attack on the besiegers, but are not agreed as to the time and mode of it, the decision may be on the side of a minority who deem it better to remain on the defensive. Accordingly, it is matter of common remark that a 'Council of War' rarely ends in a resolution to fight a battle.

'The results of this cause are sometimes evil, and sometimes —perhaps more frequently—good. Many troublesome and pernicious restrictions and enactments, as well as some beneficial ones, are in this way prevented.

'And again the delay and discussion which ensue when powerful parties are at all nearly balanced, afford an opening for arguments: and this, on the whole, and in the long run, gives an advantage (more or less, according to the state of intellectual culture and civilization) to the most wise and moderate,—in short, to those (even though but a small portion, numerically, of the assembly) who have the best arguments on their side. Some, in each of the opposed parties, may thus be influenced by reason, who would not have waited to listen to reason, but for the check they receive from each other. And thus it will sometimes happen that a result may ensue even better than could have been calculated from the mere mechanical computation of the acting forces.'

The above views are the more important, because any one who does not embrace them, will be likely, on contemplating any wise institution or enactment of former times, to be thrown into indolent despondency, if he find, as lie often will, that the majority of those around - us do not seem to come up to the standard which those institutions and enactments appear to him to imply. He takes for granted that the whole, or the chief part, of the members of those assemblies, &c., in which such and such measures were carried, must have been men of a corresponding degree of good sense, and moderation, and public spirit: and perceiving (as he thinks) that an assembly of such men could not now be found, he concludes that wisdom and goodness (in governments at least) must have died with our ancestors; or at least that no good is at present to be hoped from any government. And yet perhaps the truth will be that the greater part of the very assemblies whose measures he is admiring may have consisted of men of several parties, each of which would, if left entirely to itself, have made a much worse decision than the one actually adopted; and that one may have been such, as, though not actually to coincide with, yet most nearly to approach to, the opinions of the wisest and best members of the assembly, though those may have been but a small minority. And it may be therefore, that he may have around him the materials of an assembly not at all inferior in probity or intelligence to that which he is contemplating with despairing admiration.

'I commend also standing Commissions'

If a standing Commission were appointed by Parliament, consisting of three or four eminent Lawyers, with handsome salaries, whose sole business should be to draw up Bills according to the instructions given by each proposer, this would save an infinity of litigation, and confused and fruitless legislation. No Bill should then be ever altered in its passage through either House; nor should there ever be such a thing as a 'Committee of the whole House;' that great source of confusion; but each Bill should be either passed as it is, or rejected, or referred back to the 'standing Commission' for amendment. And thus we should almost entirely escape the absurdities and inconveniences of 'An Act to amend an Act, to amend an Act,' &c. &c.

'A king, when he presides in council

It is remarkable how a change of very great importance in our system of government was brought about by pure accident. The custom of the king's being present in a cabinet council of his ministers, which was the obvious, and had always been the usual state of things, was put an «nd to when the Hanoverian princes came to the throne, from their ignorance of the English language. The advantage thence resulting, of ministers laying before the sovereign the result of their full and free deliberations—an advantage not at all originally contemplated,—caused the custom to be continued, and so established that it is most unlikely it should ever be changed.


FORTUNE is like the market, where, many times, if you can stay a little, the price will fall; and again, it is sometimes like Sibylla's' offer, which at first offereth the commodity at full, then consumeth part and part, and still holdeth up the price; for occasion (as it is in the common verse) turneth a bald noddle after she hath presented her locks in front, and no hold taken; or, at least, turneth the handle of the bottle first to be received, and after the belly,2 which is hard to clasp.3 There is surely no greater wisdom than well to time the beginnings and onsets of things. Dangers are no more light, if they once seem light; and more dangers have deceived men than forced them: nay, it were better to meet some dangers half way, though they come nothing near, than to keep too long a watch upon their approaches; for if a man watch too long, it is odds he will fall asleep. On the other side, to be deceived with too long shadows (as some have been when the moon was low, and shone on their enemies' backs), and so to shoot off before the time, or to teach dangers to come on, by over-early buckling* towards them, is another extreme. The ripeness or unripeness of the occasion (as we said) must ever be well weighed; and generally it is good to commit the beginnings of all great actions to Argus with his hundred eyes, and the ends to Briareus with his hundred hands—first to watch, and then to speed; for the helmet of Pluto,5 which maketh the politic man go invisible, is secrecy in the counsel, and celerity in the execution; for when things are once come to the execution, there is no secrecy comparable to celerity—like the motion of a bullet in the air, which flieth so swift as it outruns the eye.

1 Sibylla. The Sibyl.

* Belly.. Tluit protuberance or cavity of anything resembling the human belhj. 'An Irish harp hath the concave, or beUy, at the end of the strings.'—Bacon,

Kat. Hist- 3 phsed- V"1

* Buckle. To go; to hasten towards.

'Soon he buckled to the field.'—Spenser. 5 Homer, 17. v. 845.


Pro. Contra.

'Fortuna multu festinanti vendit, 'Occasio, instar Sibylla, mimiit obla

qnibus morantem domit. tum, pretium anget.

'Fortune often Sells to the hasty what * Opportunity, like the Sibyl, dimi

ih. Lives to those who wait.' nishes her offering, and increases her

price, at each visit.'

'Celeritas, Orci galea.

'Speed is the helmet of Pluto.'


This matter' of 'Delays' is most emphatically one in which, as Sir Roger de Coverley might have decided, much may be said on both sides. The rules which Bacon does give are very good; but, as it has been well observed, 'genius begins where rules end,' and there is no matter wherein rules can go a less way, or wherein there is more call for what may be called practical genius: that is, a far-sighted sagacity, as to the probable results of taking or not taking a certain step, and a delicate tact in judging of the peculiar circumstances of each case.

It is important to keep in mind, that in some cases, where (as Bacon has expressed it) 'not to decide is to decide,' a delay may amount to a wrong decision; and in other cases may at least produce serious evil. Thus, there was once a very learned and acute Lord Chancellor, none of whose decisions, I believe, were ever reversed, but who very often decided, virtually, against both parties, by delaying his decision till both were beggared by law-expenses, and broken down in mind and body by anxious care. And he delayed filling up Livings for two or three years, or more, to the great detriment of the parish, and sometimes with heavy loss of the revenue of the benefice.

The greater part of men are bigots to one or the other of the opposite systems,—of delay, or of expedition; always for acting either on the maxim of 'never put off till to-morrow what can be done to-day,' or, on the opposite one, which is said to have been in the mouth of Talleyrand, * never do to-day what can be done to-morrow.'

« PreviousContinue »