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Democracy, Voting, and the Founder of Modern Anarchism: Godwin’s Thoughts on Man

Godwin recognizes the “obviousness” of voting and representation in the modern era, but carefully notes that democracy is no solution to the problem of coercion.

Editor’s Note

For his next essay, Godwin returns to his roots in political philosophy, taking on the subject of voting and the proper, reasonable requirements we may expect for the privilege of the franchise. For the purposes of the essay, he takes for granted that representative government is the best of those which have historically existed and the balloting device “is obvious.”

So, then, who should be allowed to vote, and on what basis? In most premodern republics or democracies, voting was not the absolute right of every person. It was carefully restricted to citizens, freeholders, tax-payers, and the like. Each scheme of dividing voters and non-voters reflected the preexisting class divisions in the society. Those in dependent socio-economic positions defer political judgment to their betters, or the ruling class pressures dependents to this effect. While Godwin argues that voting and representation have an edge over non-republican government in that the poor and laboring classes at least exercise some influence over their rulers, he is careful to note that “Every thing however that is more than this, is evil. There should be no peremptory mandates, and no threat of apprehension of retaliation and mischief to follow, in the man of inferior station or opulence should finally differ in opinion from his wealthier neighbor. We may admit of a moral influence; but there must be nothing, that should in the smallest degree border on compulsion.” Yet, the wealthy and powerful are rarely satisfied ruling over a static domain. To prevent the wealthy from constantly and merely preying on the weak, reformers championed the universal ballot.

Against this “obvious” panacea Godwin cautions that “the vote by ballot, in its obvious construction, is not the symbol of liberty, but of slavery.” It may look somewhat like liberty, it may feel a lot like liberty, but in fact democracy created a war of all against all by inviting everyone into the arena. Under the democratic influence, parliamentary governance degenerated even further from being a relatively small clique of criminal elites to a cesspool and breeding ground for power-seeking creatures of all sorts. At home, “every man suspected his neighbor,” because every man would now exercise power over every other. For Godwin, representation may be a convenient way for people to communicate ideas in centralized bodies, but our most important moral test as individuals was to positively refuse to exercise direct and compulsory power over any other individuals. Truly positive, progressive, reasonable changes in society could only come about through education and moral suasion. The socialization and democratization of institutionalized force did not end social conflict, but it did now implicate the voting public the great governance conspiracy. 

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History



…It is admitted that the most beneficial scheme for the government of nations, is a government by representation: that is, that there shall be in every nation, or large collection of men, a paramount legislative assembly, composed of deputies chosen by the people in their respective counties, cities, towns, or departments. In what manner then shall these deputies be elected?

The argument in favour of the election by ballot is obvious.

In nearly all civilised countries there exists more or less an inequality of rank and property: we will confine our attention principally to the latter.

Property necessarily involves influence. Mankind are but too prone to pay a superior deference to those who wear better clothes, live in larger houses, and command superior accommodations to those which fall to the lot of the majority.

One of the main sources of wealth in civilised nations is the possession of land. Those who have a considerable allotment of land in property, for the most part let it out in farms on lease or otherwise to persons of an inferior rank, by whom it is cultivated. In this case a reciprocal relation is created between the landlord and the tenant: and, if the landlord conducts himself towards his tenant agreeably to the principles of honour and liberality, it is impossible that the tenant should not feel disposed to gratify his landlord, so far as shall be compatible with his own notions of moral rectitude, or the paramount interests of the society of which he is a member.

If the proprietor of any extensive allotment of land does not let it out in farms, but retains it under his own direction, he must employ a great number of husbandmen and labourers; and over them he must be expected to exercise the same sort of influence, as under the former statement we supposed him to exercise over his tenants.

The same principle will still operate wherever any one man in society is engaged in the expenditure of a considerable capital. The manufacturer will possess the same influence over his workmen, as the landed proprietor over his tenants or labourers. Even the person who possesses considerable opulence, and has no intention to engage in the pursuits of profit or accumulation, will have an ample retinue, and will be enabled to use the same species of influence over his retainers and trades-people, as the landlord exercises over his tenants and labourers, and the manufacturer over his workmen.

A certain degree of this species of influence in society, is perhaps not to be excepted against. The possessor of opulence in whatever form, may be expected to have received a superior education, and, being placed at a certain distance from the minuter details and the lesser wheels in the machine of society, to have larger and more expansive views as to the interests of the whole. It is good that men in different ranks of society should be brought into intercourse with each other; it will subtract something from the prejudices of both, and enable each to obtain some of the advantages of the other. The division of rank is too much calculated to split society into parties having a certain hostility to each other. In a free state we are all citizens: it is desirable that we should all be friends.

But this species of influence may be carried too far. To a certain extent it is good. Inasmuch as it implies the enlightening one human understanding by the sparks struck out from another, or even the communication of feelings between man and man, this is not to be deprecated. Some degree of courteous compliance and deference of the ignorant to the better informed, is inseparable from the existence of political society as we behold it; such a deference as we may conceive the candid and conscientious layman to pay to the suggestions of his honest and disinterested pastor.

Every thing however that is more than this, is evil. There should be no peremptory mandates, and no threat or apprehension of retaliation and mischief to follow, if the man of inferior station or opulence should finally differ in opinion from his wealthier neighbour. We may admit of a moral influence; but there must be nothing, that should in the smallest degree border on compulsion.

But it is unfortunately in the very nature of weak, erring and fallible mortals, to make an ill use of the powers that are confided to their discretion. The rich man in the wantonness of his authority will not stop at moral influence, but, if he is disappointed of his expectation by what he will call my wilfulness and obstinacy, will speedily find himself impelled to vindicate his prerogative, and to punish my resistance. In every such disappointment he will discern a dangerous precedent, and will apprehend that, if I escape with impunity, the whole of that ascendancy, which he has regarded as one of the valuable privileges contingent to his station, will be undermined.

Opulence has two ways of this grosser sort, by which it may enable its possessor to command the man below him,—punishment and reward. As the holder, for example, of a large landed estate, or the administrator of an ample income, may punish the man who shews himself refractory to his will, so he may also reward the individual who yields to his suggestions. This, in whatever form it presents itself, may be classed under the general head of bribery.

The remedy for all this therefore, real or potential, mischief, is said to lie in the vote by ballot, a contrivance, by means of which every man shall be enabled to give his vote in favour of or against any candidate that shall be nominated, in absolute secrecy, without it being possible for any one to discover on which side the elector decided,—nay, a contrivance, by which the elector is invited to practise mystery and concealment, inasmuch as it would seem an impertinence in him to speak out, when the law is expressly constructed to bid him act and be silent. If he speaks, he is guilty of a sort of libel on his brother-electors, who are hereby implicitly reproached by him for their impenetrableness and cowardice.

We are told that the institution of the ballot is indispensible to the existence of a free state, in a country where the goods of fortune are unequally distributed. In England, as the right of sending members to parliament is apportioned at the time I am writing, the power of electing is bestowed with such glaring inequality, and the number of electors in many cases is so insignificant, as inevitably to give to the noble and the rich the means of appointing almost any representatives they think fit, so that the house of commons may more justly be styled the nominees of the upper house, than the deputies of the nation. And it is further said, Remedy this inequality as much as you please, and reform the state of the representation to whatever degree, still, so long as the votes at elections are required to be given openly, the reform will be unavailing, and the essential part of the mischief will remain. The right of giving our votes in secrecy, is the only remedy that can cut off the ascendancy of the more opulent members of the community over the rest, and give us the substance of liberty, instead of cheating us with the shadow.

On the other side I would beg the reader to consider, that the vote by ballot, in its obvious construction, is not the symbol of liberty, but of slavery. What is it, that presents to every eye the image of liberty, and compels every heart to confess, This is the temple where she resides? An open front, a steady and assured look, an habitual and uninterrupted commerce between the heart and the tongue. The free man communicates with his neighbour, not in corners and concealed places, but in market-places and scenes of public resort; and it is thus that the sacred spark is caught from man to man, till all are inspired with a common flame. Communication and publicity are of the essence of liberty; it is the air they breathe; and without it they die.

If on the contrary I would characterise a despotism, I should say, It implied a certain circumference of soil, through whose divisions and districts every man suspected his neighbour, where every man was haunted with the terror that “walls have ears,” and only whispered his discontent, his hopes and his fears, to the trees of the forest and the silent streams. If the dwellers on this soil consulted together, it would be in secret cabals and with closed doors; engaging in the sacred cause of public welfare and happiness, as if it were a thing of guilt, which the conspirator scarcely ventured to confess to his own heart.

A shrewd person of my acquaintance the other day, to whom I unadvisedly proposed a question as to what he thought of some public transaction, instantly replied with symptoms of alarm, “I beg to say that I never disclose my opinions upon matters either of religion or politics to any one.” What did this answer imply as to the political government of the country where it was given?

Is it characteristic of a free state or a tyranny?

One of the first and highest duties that falls to the lot of a human creature, is that which he owes to the aggregate of reasonable beings inhabiting what he calls his country. Our duties are then most solemn and elevating, when they are calculated to affect the well being of the greatest number of men; and of consequence what a patriot owes to his native soil is the noblest theatre for his moral faculties. And shall we teach men to discharge this debt in the dark? Surely every man ought to be able to “render a reason of the hope that is in him,” and give a modest, but an assured, account of his political conduct. When he approaches the hustings at the period of a public election, this is his altar, where he sacrifices in the face of men to that deity, which is most worth his adoration of all the powers whose single province is our sublunary state.

But the principle of the institution of ballot is to teach men to perform their best actions under the cloke of concealment. When I return from giving my vote in the choice of a legislative representative, I ought, if my mode of proceeding were regulated by the undebauched feelings of our nature, to feel somewhat proud that I had discharged this duty, uninfluenced, uncorrupted, in the sincere frame of a conscientious spirit. But the institution of ballot instigates me carefully to conceal what I have done. If I am questioned respecting it, the proper reply which is as it were put into my mouth is, “You have no right to ask me; and I shall not tell.” But, as every man does not recollect the proper reply at the moment it is wanted, and most men feel abashed, when a direct question is put to them to which they know they are not to return a direct answer, many will stammer and feel confused, will perhaps insinuate a falshood, while at the same time their manner to a discerning eye will, in spite of all their precautions, disclose the very truth.

The institution of ballot not only teaches us that our best actions are those which we ought most steadily to disavow, but carries distrust and suspicion into all our most familiar relations. The man I want to deceive, and throw out in the keenness of his hunting, is my landlord. But how shall I most effectually conceal the truth from him? May I be allowed to tell it to my wife or my child? I had better not. It is a known maxim of worldly prudence, that the truth which may be a source of serious injury to me, is safest, when it is shut up in my own bosom. If I once let it out, there is no saying where the communication may stop. “Day unto day uttereth speech; and night unto night sheweth forth knowledge.”

And is this the proud attitude of liberty, to which we are so eager to aspire? After all, there will be some ingenuous men in the community, who will not know how for ever to suppress what is dearest to their hearts. But at any rate this institution holds out a prize to him that shall be most secret and untraceable in his proceedings, that shall “shoe his horses with felt,” and proceed in all his courses with silence and suspicion.

The first principle of morality to social man is, that we act under the eye of our fellows. The truly virtuous man would do as he ought, though no eye observed him. Persons, it is true, who deport themselves merely as “men-pleasers,” for ever considering how the by-standers will pronounce of their conduct, are entitled to small commendation…

But, imperfect creatures as we mortals usually are, these things act and react upon each other. A man of honourable intentions will demean himself justly, from the love of right. But he is confirmed in his just dealing by the approbation of his fellows; and, if he were tempted to step awry, he would be checked by the anticipation of their censure. Such is the nature of our moral education. It is with virtue, as it is with literary fame. If I write well, I can scarcely feel secure that I do so, till I obtain the suffrage of some competent judges, confirming the verdict which I was before tempted to pronounce in my own favour.

This acting as in a theatre, where men and Gods are judges of my conduct, is the true destination of man; and we cannot violate the universal law under which we were born, without having reason to fear the most injurious effects.

And is this mysterious and concealed way of proceeding one of the forms through which we are to pass in the school of liberty? The great end of all liberal institutions is, to make a man fearless, frank as the day, acting from a lively and earnest impulse, which will not be restrained, disdains all half-measures, and prompts us, as it were, to carry our hearts in our hands, for all men to challenge, and all men to comment on. It is true, that the devisers of liberal institutions will have foremost in their thoughts, how men shall be secure in their personal liberty, unrestrained in the execution of what their thoughts prompt them to do, and uncontrolled in the administration of the fruits of their industry…

We are to begin, it seems, with concealing from our landlord, or our opulent neighbour, our political determinations; and so his corrupt influence will be broken, and the humblest individual will be safe in doing that which his honest and unbiased feelings may prompt him to do.

No: this is not the way in which the enemy of the souls of men is to be defeated. We must not begin with the confession of our faint-heartedness and our cowardice. A quiet, sober, unaltered frame of judgment, that insults no one, that has in it nothing violent, brutal and defying, is the frame that becomes us. If I would teach another man, my superior in rank, how he ought to construe and decide upon the conduct I hold, I must begin by making that conduct explicit.

It is not in morals, as it is in war. There stratagem is allowable, and to take the enemy by surprise. “Who enquires of an enemy, whether it is by fraud or heroic enterprise that he has gained the day?” But it is not so that the cause of liberty is to be vindicated in the civil career of life.

The question is of reducing the higher ranks of society to admit the just immunities of their inferiors. I will not allow that they shall be cheated into it. No: no man was ever yet recovered to his senses in a question of morals, but by plain, honest, soul-commanding speech. Truth is omnipotent, if we do not violate its majesty by surrendering its outworks, and giving up that vantage-ground, of which if we deprive it, it ceases to be truth. It finds a responsive chord in every human bosom…

The improvement of the general institutions of society, the correction of the gross inequalities of our representation, will operate towards the improvement of all the members of the community. While ninety-nine in an hundred of the inhabitants of England are carried forward in the scale of intellect and virtue, it would be absurd to suppose that the hundredth man will stand still, merely because he is rich. Patriotism is a liberal and a social impulse; its influence is irresistible; it is contagious, and is propagated by the touch; it is infectious, and mixes itself with the air that we breathe.

Men are governed in their conduct in a surprising degree by the opinion of others. It was all very well, when noblemen were each of them satisfied of the equity and irresistible principle of their ascendancy, when the vulgar population felt convinced that passive obedience was entailed on them from their birth, when we were in a manner but just emancipated (illusorily emancipated!) from the state of serfs and villains. But a memorable melioration of the state of man will carry some degree of conviction to the hearts of all. The most corrupt will be made doubtful: many who had not gone so far in ill, will desert the banners of oppression…

The manners of society are by no means so unchanged and unalterable as many men suppose…

Let us not then disgrace a period of memorable improvement, by combining it with an institution that should mark that we, the great body of the people, regard the more opulent members of the community as our foes. Let us hold out to them the right hand of fellowship; and they will meet us. They will be influenced, partly by ingenuous shame for the unworthy conduct which they and their fathers had so long pursued, and partly by sympathy for the genuine joy and expansion of heart that is spreading itself through the land. Scarcely any one can restrain himself from participating in the happiness of the great body of his countrymen; and, if they see that we treat them with generous confidence, and are unwilling to recur to the memory of former grievances, and that a spirit of philanthropy and unlimited good-will is the sentiment of the day, it can scarcely happen but that their conversion will be complete, and the harmony be made entire.

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