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But still worse are those mock-wise men who mingle the two systems together, and are slow and quick just in the same degree that a really wise man is; only, in the wrong places : who make their decisions hastily, and are slow in the execution; begin in a hurry, and are dilatory in proceeding; who unmask their battery hastily, and then think of loading their guns; who cut their corn green, (according to the French proverbial expression of ‘manger son blé en herbe,') and let their fruit hang to ripen till it has been blown down by the winds and is rotting on the ground.
• The ripeness or unripeness of the occasion must ever be well
It is a common phrase with the undiscriminating advocates of delay, that “The World is not yet ripe for such and such a measure.' But they usually forget to inquire Is it ripening? When, and how, is it likely to become ripe? or, Are men's minds to ripen like winter pears, merely by laying them by, and letting them alone ?
Time,' as Bishop Copleston has remarked, (Remains, p. 123,) 'is no agent. When we speak of such and such changes being brought about by time, we mean in time,-by the gradual and imperceptible operation of some gentle agency. We should observe therefore, whether there is any such agency at work, and in what direction ;—whether to render a certain change more difficult or easier. If you are surrounded by the waters, and want to escape, you should observe whether the tide is flowing or ebbing. In the one case, you should at once attempt the ford, at all hazards; in the other, you have to wait patiently. And if the water be still, and neither rising nor falling, then you should consider that though there is no danger of drowning, you must remain insulated for ever, unless you cross the ford; and that if this is to be done at all, it may be as well done at once.
The case of slavery in the United States is one of a rising tide. The rapid multiplication of slaves which has already rendered their emancipation a difficult and hazardous step, makes it more so every year, and increases the danger of a servile war such as that of St. Domingo.
The serfdom of the Russians is, perhaps, rather a case of
still water. There seems no great reason to expect that the state of things will grow either worse or better, spontaneously.
In each of these cases, the slaves and the serfs are not ripe for freedom; no enslaved people ever are; and to wait before you bestow liberty, or political rights, till the recipients are fit to employ them aright, is to resolve not to go into the water till you can swim. You must make up your mind to encounter many very considerable evils, at first, and for some time, while men are learning to use the advantages conferred on them.
It is the part of wisdom, however, to lessen these evils as far as can be done by careful preparation, and by bringing forward the several portions of any measure in the best order. A striking instance of the wisdom of this rule was exhibited in the measures adopted in reference to the Irish Roman-catholics. The first thing done was to bestow political power on the lowest, most ignorant, and most priest-ridden of the people, by giving them the elective franchise; at the same time making this a source of continual irritation and continued agitation, because they were still restricted from electing members of their own persuasion. Roman-catholics were still precluded from sitting in Parliament, because, forsooth, 'no one of that Church could be safely trusted with political power !' So said thousands, and hundreds of thousands, for nearly forty years, during which Roman-catholics had been exercising political power (as freeholders) in the most dangerous way possible. The next step was to admit Roman-catholics to seats; which ought to have preceded--as almost every one now admits—the conferring of the elective franchise; because the Roman-catholics who would thus have been admitted to a share of political power would have been few, and would have belonged to the educated classes. And last of all came that which should have been the first of all,--the providing of some such schooling for the mass of the people as might render them at least one degree less unfit for political power.
And, was the long interval between the beginning and the end of this series of measures, occupied in providing against the dangers to be apprehended as resulting ? Quite the reverse. Instead of holding out, so as to gain better terms, we held out for worse. The ministry of 1806 provided certain conditions as safeguards, which that of 1829 would not venture to insist on. The one ministry would have capitulated on terms; the other surrendered nearly at discretion. The one proposed to confer something of a free-will boon ; the other yielded avowedly to intimidation.
| This passage had reference to the state of things some years ago.
In the Heart of Midlothian there is an amusing scene, where Jeanie, having discovered that the young ruffian, 'the Whistler,' is her nephew, goes to visit him in the outhouse where he is confined, bound hand and foot. She first unbinds him; and then proceeds to propose conditions of release; saying 'I will not let you out unless you will promise . But I'll make you let me out:' and with that he snatches up the candle and sets fire to the hovel. She runs out screaming; and he escapes.
This may serve as a kind of type of the conduct of those who first grant men enough power to make their demand irresistible, and then afterwards think about limitations, and stipulations, and oaths, and suchlike securities.
In reference to the unfitness for freedom (just above alluded to) of those who have been enslaved, there is a just and important remark in a little pamphlet by Bishop Hinds, published several years ago (under the title of a Letter to Lord Brougham):
—that the person who has the best opportunity both of judging of any Slave's fitness for liberty, and of training him to that fitness, is, the Master ;—the very person whose apparent interest is to keep him a slave. The problem is, to make the Master's interest lie the other way. And the proposed solution, which is both ingenious and simple, is, a tax on Slaves; -an ad valorem tax, of so much per cent. on the value of each slave, as estimated by the master; who, however, is to be bound to part with the Slave to Government, if required, at the price fixed by himself; which rule would prevent him from fixing it too low. The slaves would thus be a burden to the master; and the most so, the most valuable; that is, the most intelligent, industrious, and trusty ; who are those most qualified for liberty. These therefore he would be induced to free speedily; and the rest, as soon as each could be trained to such habits as would qualify him to be a free labourer. And thus Slavery would gradually melt away, without any dangerous revolution.
There is no secrecy comparable to celerity.' We have an illustration of the importance of celerity in the execution,' in circumstances in the history of our government of a later date than the instance above mentioned. A ministry which had established a certain system about which there had been much controversy, was succeeded by those of the opposite party; and these were eagerly looked to, by men of all parties, to see whether they would support that system in its integrity, or abolish, or materially modify it. They were warned of the importance of coming to a speedy decision one way or the other, and of clearly proclaiming it at once, in order to put a stop to false hopes and false fears. And it was pointed out to them that those who had hitherto opposed that system were now, avowedly, resting on their oars, and waiting to see what course the ministers they favoured would adopt. This warning was conveyed in a letter, pressing for a speedy answer : the answer came in a year and a half! and after every encouragement had been given, during the interim of hesitation, to the opponents of the system to come forward to commit themselves anew to their opposition (which they did), then at length the system was adopted and approved, and carried on in the face of these marshalled opponents, embittered by disappointment, and indignant at what they regarded as betrayal !
So much for taking one's time, and proceeding leisurely!
In another case, a measure of great benefit to the empire was proposed, which was approved by almost all sensible and publicspirited men acquainted with the case, but unacceptable to those who wished to . fish in troubled waters,' and had sagacity enough to perceive the tendency of the measure,—and also by some few whose private interest was opposed to that of the Public, and by several others who were either misled by the above, or afraid of losing popularity with them. The wise course would have been, to make the exact arrangements, secretly, for all the details, and then at once to bring forward the measure; which would at once, and with ease, have been carried. Instead of this, the design was announced publicly, long before, so as to afford ample time and opportunity for getting up petitions, and otherwise organizing opposition; and then advantage was taken of some flaw in the details of the measure, which had been overlooked, and might easily have been remedied: and thus the measure was defeated.
It was as if a general should proclaim a month beforehand the direction in which he meant to march, so as to allow the enemy to prepare all kinds of obstacles; and then, when he had begun his march, to be forced to turn back, from having left his pontoons and his artillery behind !
• To shoot off before the time, or to teach dangers to come on by
over-early buckling towards them, is another extreme.' This error of taking some step prematurely, or of doing at one stride what had better have been done gradually, arises often, in a sensible man, from a sense of the shortness and uncertainty of life, and an impatience to see of the labour of his soul and be satisfied,' instead of leaving his designs to be carried into execution, or to be completed, by others, who may perhaps not do the work so well, or may be defeated by some rally of opponents.
And sometimes it is even wise, under the circumstances, to proceed more hastily than would have been advisable if one could have been sure of being able to proceed without obstacles. It would have been, for instance, in itself, better to relax gradually the laws interfering with free-trade, than to sweep them away at once. But the interval would have been occupied in endeavours, which might have been successful, to effect a kind of counter-revolution, and re-establish those laws. And so it is with many other reforms.
A man who plainly perceives that, as Bacon observes, there are some cases which call for promptitude, and others which require delay, and who has also sagacity enough to perceive which is which, will often be mortified at perceiving that he has come too late for some things, and too soon for others;—that he is like a skilful engineer, who perceives how he could, fifty years earlier, have effectually preserved an important harbour which is now irrecoverably silted up, and how he could, fifty years hence, though not at present, reclaim from the sea thousands of acres of fertile land at the delta of some river.
Hence the proverb
*He that is truly wise and great,
'See Proverbs and Precepts for Copy-pieces for Schools.