Political Liberty.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  This is, in strictness, a branch of civil liberty. Political liberty implies the existence of such political institutions as secure, with the greatest practicable certainty, the future possession of freedom,—the existence of which institutions is one of the requisites, in a general sense, of civil liberty; because it is as necessary to proper government that securities for freedom should be framed as that present freedom should be permitted.

  The possession of political liberty is of great importance. A Russian may enjoy as great a share of personal freedom as an Englishman; that is, he may find as few restrictions upon the exercise of his own will; but he has no security for the continuance of this. For aught that he knows, he may be arbitrarily thrown into prison to-morrow; and therefore, though he may live and die without molestation, he is politically enslaved. When it is considered how much human happiness depends upon the security of enjoying happiness in future, such institutions as those of Russia are great grievances; and Englishmen, though they may regret the curtailment of some items of civil liberty, have much comparative reason to think themselves politically free.

  The possession of political liberty is unquestionably a right of a community. They may with perfect reason require it even of governments which actually govern well. It is not enough for a government to say, None but beneficial laws and acts of authority are adopted. It must, if it would fulfil the duties of a government, accumulate, to the utmost, securities for beneficial measures hereafter. In this view, it may be feared that no government in Europe fulfils all its duty to the people.

  And here considerations are suggested respecting the representation of a people,—a point which, if some political writers were to be listened to, was a sine qua non of political liberty. “To talk of an abstract right of equal representation is absurd. It is to arrogate a right to one form of government, whereas Providence has accommodated the different forms of government to the different states of society in which they subsist.1 If an inhabitant of Birmingham should come and tell me that he and his neighbours were debarred of political liberty because they sent no representatives to parliament, I should say that the justness of his complaint was problematical. It does not follow because a man is not represented that he is not politically free. The question is, whether as good securities for liberty exist, without permitting him to vote, as with it. If it can be shown that the present legislative government affords as good a security for the future freedom of the people as any other that might be devised, the inhabitant of Birmingham enjoys, at present, political liberty. It is a very common mistake among writers to assume some particular privilege or institution as a test of this liberty,—as something without which it cannot be enjoyed,—and yet I suppose there is no one of their institutions or privileges under which it would not be possible to enslave a people. Simple republicanism, universal suffrage, and frequent .elections might afford no better security for civil liberty than absolute monarchy. In fine, political liberty is not a matter that admits of certain conclusions from theoretical reasoning: it is a question of facts: a question to be decided, like questions of philosophy, by reasoning founded upon experience. If the inhabitant of Birmingham can show, from relevant experience, good ground to conclude that greater security for liberty would be derived from extending the representation, he baa reason to complain of an undue privation of political liberty if it is not extended.

  But then it is always incumbent upon the legislature to prove the probable superiority of the existing institutions, when any considerable portion of the people desire an alteration. That desire constitutes a claim to investigation; and to an alteration too, unless the existing institutions appear to be superior to those which are desired. It is not enough to show that they are as good,—for though in other respects the two plans were equally balanced, the present are not so good as the others if they give less satisfaction to the community. To be satisfied is one great ingredient in the welfare of a people: and in whatever degree a people are not satisfied, in the same degree civil government does not perfectly effect its proper ends. To deny satisfaction to a people without showing a reason is to withhold from them the due portion of civil liberty.

1 William Pitt: Gifford’s Life, vol. iii.

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