The State and the Ruling Class: An Anthology of Key Works of Libertarian/Classical Liberal Class Analysis

Compiled by David M. Hart
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[Created: 16 August, 2016]
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Vicesimus Knox, The Spirit of Despotism (1795)

Editing History

  • Item added: 31 Aug. 2016
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Vicesimus Knox, The Works of Vicesimus Knox, D.D. with a Biographical Preface. In Seven Volumes (London: J. Mawman, 1824). Vol. 5. <>

  • Vicesimus Knox, The Spirit of Despotism (1795) <>
  • SECTION XXIX. Of the Despotism of Influence; while the Forms of a free Constitution are preserved.
  • SECTION XXX. The Spirit of Despotism delights in War or systematic Murder.
  • SECTION XXXII. On Political Ethics; their chief Object is to throw Power into the Hands of the worst Part of Mankind, and to render Government an Institution calculated to enrich and aggrandize a few, at the expense of the Liberty, Property, and Lives of the many.

Editor's Intro




Of the Despotism of Influence; while the Forms of a free Constitution are preserved.

The words of a great lawyer, instructing the youth of a nation at a celebrated university, must be supposed to be well considered. Blackstone, the grave commentator, after expatiating on the advantages derived from the revolution, proceeds to remark, that “though these provisions have nominally and in appearance reduced the strength of the executive power to a much lower ebb than in the preceding period; yet if, on the other hand, we throw into the opposite scale the vast acquisition of force arising from the riot act, and the annual expedience of a standing army; and the vast acquisition of personal attachment, arising from the magnitude of the national debt, and the manner of levying those yearly millions that are appropriated to pay the interest; we shall find that the crown has gradually and imperceptibly gained almost as much influence as it has apparently lost in prerogative.”

Blackstone, consistently with the habits of his profession, expressed himself cautiously. He says the crown has gained almost as much influence as it has apparently lost in prerogative. There are men of great political judgment who think that it has gained more. The House of Commons has, in an auspicious hour, resolved, and it can never be too often repeated, that the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. Influence is more dangerous than prerogative. It is a subtle poison that acts unseen. Prerogative can be resisted, as a robber; but influence is an assassin.

Lord Bolingbroke tells us, that “we have lost the spirit of our constitution; and therefore we bear, from little engrossers of delegated power, what our fathers would not have suffered from true proprietors of the royal authority.”

Such suggestions are certainly alarming. They come from high authority, and are abundantly confirmed by recent transactions. The magnitude of the national debt, and the share that almost every family in the kingdom, directly or indirectly, possesses in the public funds, contribute, more than all other causes, to increase the influence of the crown among the mass of the people. But the debt is still increasing, in consequence of war. Property in the funds is still more widely diffused; the influence, in consequence, more extended. Liberty may be more effectually invaded by the influence of the stocks, than it ever was invaded, in the days of the Stuarts, by the abuse of prerogative.

We are happy in a king, who, making the happiness of the people his first object, certainly would not avail himself of any advantages afforded by circumstances, to intrench upon their liberty. But be it remembered, that ministers in this country, with their favourites, often constitute an oligarchy.

This ministerial oligarchy may certainly abuse the influence of the crown, so as to render itself virtually superior to the limited and constitutional monarchy. Should such ever be the case, the oligarchy will be a species of despotism, the more formidable as the more insidious; possessing the power, but denying the form. By a judicious distribution of favours, by alluring all the rich and great to its side, either by hope or by fear, it may erect a rampart, which the independent part of the people, acting from no system, and disunited, may vainly seek to demolish. The monarch and the people may join hand in hand, without effect, against a ministerial oligarchy, thus buttressed by a faction composed of rank and wealth artfully combined, in the meanest manner, for the basest purposes. False alarms may be spread on the danger of property from the diffusion of new principles, so as to drive all who possess an acre of land, or a hundred pounds in the public funds, within the ministerial pale. Religion may be said to be in danger, in order to bring in the devout and well-disposed. Order may be declared in jeopardy, that the weak, the timid, and the quiet may be led, by their fears, to unite with wealth and power. Plots and conspiracies are common expedients of delusion. They have been used, by profligate ministers, with such a total disregard to truth and probability, that they now begin to lose their effect. But how dreadful, if influence should ever prevail with juries, to gratify the inventors of false plots, treasons, and conspiracies, by bringing in verdicts favourable to the views of the villainous fabricators! English juries are indeed still uncorrupted. They are unconnected with courts and ministers. And the uncorrupt part of our system, in cases of state trials, is able to prevent the mischief which would be caused by the corrupt part of it. The honest juries, in the late trials for treason, have not only done honour to our country and to human nature, but added great strength to the cause of truth, justice, and the constitution.

But it is truly alarming, to hear the verdicts of juries obliquely impeached by eminent men in the legislative assemblies. There has appeared no stronger symptom of the spirit of despotism, than the attempts of courtiers and crown lawyers, in the public senate, to vilify juries and their verdicts, given after a more solemn and longer investigation than ever took place on similar trials. Persons acquitted after such an ordeal, have been said to be no more innocent than acquitted felons. That the people have born such an insult on their most valuable privilege, with patience, is a proof that a tame acquiescence has been produced among them, unknown to their virtuous ancestors. It is to be hoped the insult will stimulate future juries to preserve their rights with jealous vigilance, and render them impregnable by ministerial influence, directly or indirectly applied. If the men who disapprove the verdicts of the virtuous juries, on the late occasions, had themselves been the jurors, they would have given different verdicts, pronounced the prisoners guilty, and assigned them over to the resentment of irritated, aristocratic pride. So mighty is the despotism of influence, that neither justice nor mercy can check it in the breast of a proud parasite.

There is every reason to believe, (and the belief is highly consolatory,) that juries will long continue to preserve their integrity; because they are indiscriminately selected from the middle rank and the mass of the people. Influence cannot reach every individual in the millions that constitute a great nation. But we must remember that influence is increasing; and that its nature is to diffuse deadly poison, without giving alarm. Like the air loaded with infection, it silently and secretly wafts disease into the strongest abodes of health, and penetrates the castle, which is impregnable to the sword of the open invader. Therefore, as influence increases, the jealousy and vigilance of the uninfected part of the community should increase in proportion. Though undue influence may never operate on juries, yet is there no danger lest it should, at some distant period, contaminate the minds of judges and crown lawyers, for whose obsequious interpretations of law may be held up prizes most glittering in the eyes of imagination, and most alluring to avarice and vanity?

But granting that the foul stain of corruption should never spot the white robe of justice; that the religion of an oath should still be revered, and conscience hold the balance with au even hand; yet is there no danger lest the despotism of influence should destroy the vitals of a free constitution, and leave nothing behind but the form, the exuviæ, the name? There was a senate under the vilest of the Roman emperors. The British house of commons might become, under a ministerial oligarchy, the mere levee of a prime minister. They might meet merely to bow and bow, receive their orders and douceurs, and then depart in peace.

The present state of the house of commons cannot be too generally known; and I therefore transcribe the following passage from the “Proceedings of the Society of the Friends of the People.”

“The condition of the house of commons is practically as follows:

“Seventy-one peers and the Treasury nominate ninety members, and procure the return of seventy-seven, which amount to one hundred and sixty-seven. Ninety-one commoners nominate eighty-two members, and procure the return of fifty-seven, which amount to one hundred and thirty-nine.”

So that the peers, the Treasury, and rich commoners with influence equal to peers, return three hundred and six members out of five hundred and thirteen, which is the whole number out of English representatives in the house of commons. The Scotch members are not considered in this part of the Report.

The Society give the names of the different patrons at full length, to authenticate their statement; and I believe its accuracy and authenticity have never been controverted.

After observing that seventy-one peers and the Treasury nominate or procure the return of one hundred and sixty-seven members of parliament, who may vote away the people's money, and make laws, with the other branches, to bind many millions, let us remember, that at the commencement of every session, the following resolutions are entered on the Journals:

“Resolved, that no peer of this realm hath any right to give his vote in the election of any member to serve in parliament. Resolved, that it is a high infringement upon the liberties and privileges of the commons of Great Britain, for any lord of parliament, or any lord-lieutenant of any county, to concern themselves in the elections of members to serve for the commons in parliament.”

The committee of the Friends of the People say, “they have been the more disposed to take notice of these resolutions, because the power of the house of lords, in matters of election, has been prodigiously increased, within the last ten years, by the creation of nine peers, who return, by nomination and influence, no less than twenty-four members to the house of commons. If, therefore, the interference of the Lords in the election of the commons be, as the latter uniformly declare, a high infringement of their liberties and privileges, the committee must report those liberties and privileges to have been of late subject to the most alarming and frequent attacks.”

After producing facts that defy denial, I confidently leave every honest and sensible man in the kingdom, unblinded by prejudice, unwarped by interest, to determine whether the cause of liberty is not on the decline, and the spirit of despotism likely to avail itself of the general corruption of the aristocracy, and the tame acquiescence of the people.

I leave the question to be determined by such men, whether it is not possible that influence may create a complete despotism in a country, even while the forms of a free constitution are preserved inviolate?


The Spirit of Despotism delights in War or systematic Murder.

The people of England are industrious, they are peaceful, they wish to enjoy the fruits of their industry without a war, and to recover their lost weight in our mixed frame of government, without the hazards of a revolution.

“It is from the prevalence of Mr. Burke's politics alone, among the upper classes of society, that the rise of any dangerous disaffection in this country is to be apprehended. To the plain sense of Englishmen, a war commenced with France, on his principles, must appear to be a war on French liberty, to beat down the equitable claims of reformation here, and eventually to destroy every valuable right of the people.

“Such will be the suspected motives for plunging this country in a war, in which our fleets may be victorious, but in which even our successes must be ruinous. For views thus wild and chimerical, the nation, whose wounds received in the late war with America are hardly yet closed up, must prepare to bleed afresh. For objects thus odious and detestable, the industrious classes of the people must forego their comforts; the shoulders, already galled with taxes, the pernicious consequence of former injustice and folly, must submit again to new and heavier impositions.

“They will be cheerfully voted, no doubt, by the faithful commons; but the commons will no longer enjoy the confidence of the public. Every vote of credit or supply will then increase the general disgust; and should no greater disaster befal us, the mere protraction of the war must exhaust the patience of a disabused people.

“But what may be the contagious effect of French opinions on a nation sick of the war of kings, groaning under an intolerable load of taxes, and hopeless of redress from men, whom they will cease to consider as representatives, it is needless to state. To foresee it, is easy; to prevent it, may be impossible.”

Thus far the excellent Wyvill, in a letter to Mr. Pitt, in which he wisely dissuaded him from the unfortunate and disgraceful war, of which that minister must soon repent, though power and repentance do not usually unite. No dissuasion could cool Mr. Pitt's heroic ardour, or check his juvenile impetuosity. War was hastily commenced. The consequences were foretold, and the prediction is fulfilled.

But to an accurate observer it is an alarming proof of the spirit of despotism, when the great are eager to rush into war; when they listen to no terms of accommodation, and scorn to negotiate, in any mode or degree, previously to unsheathing the dreadful instrument of slaughter. If war, instead of being what it has been called, the ratio ultima, becomes the ratio prima regum, it is a proof that reason has lost her empire, and force usurped her throne.

Fear is the principle of all despotic government, and therefore despots make war their first study and delight. No arts and sciences, nothing that contributes to the comfort or the embellishment of human society, is half so much attended to, in countries where the spirit of despotism is established, as the means of destroying human life. Tigers, wolves, earthquakes, inundations, are all innocuous to man, when compared with the fiercest of monsters, the gory despots. Fiends, furies, demons of destruction! may the day be near, when, as wolves have been utterly exterminated from England, despots may be cut off from the face of the whole earth; and the bloody memory of them loaded with the execration of every human being, to whom God has given a heart to feel, and a tongue to utter!

Wherever a particle of their accursed spirit is found, there also will be found a propensity to war. In times of peace, the grandees find themselves shrunk to the size of common mortals. A finer house, a finer coach, a finer coat, a finer livery than others can afford, is all that they can display to the eye of the multitude, in proof of their assumed superiority. Their power is inconsiderable. But no sooner do you blow the blast of war, and put armies under their command, than they feel themselves indeed great and powerful. A hundred thousand men, in battle array, with all the instruments of destruction, under the command of a few grandees, inferior, perhaps, in bodily strength, to every one of the subject train, and but little superior in intellect or courage, yet holding all, on pain of death, in absolute subjection; how must it elevate the little despots in their own opinion! “This it is to live,” (they exclaim, shaking hands with each other) “this is to be great indeed. Now we feel our power. Glory be to us on high; especially as all our fame and greatness is perfectly compatible with our personal safety; for we will not risk our precious persons in the scene of danger, but be content with our extended patronage, with the delight of commanding the movements of this human machine, and with reading of the blood, slaughter, and burnt villages, in the Gazette, at our fire-side.”

All the expense of war is paid by the people, and most of the personal danger incurred by those, who, according to some, have no political existence; I mean the multitude, told by the head, like sheep in Smithfield. Many of these troublesome beings in human form, are happily got rid of in the field of battle, and more by sickness and hardship previous or subsequent to the glorious day of butchery. Thus all makes for the spirit of despotism. There are, in consequence of a great carnage, fewer wretches left to provide for, or to oppose its will; and all the honour, all the profit, all the amusement, falls to the share of the grandees, thus raised from the insignificance and inglorious indolence of peace, to have their names blown over the world by the trumpet of Fame, and recorded in the page of history.

But a state of war not only gives a degree of personal importance to some among the great, which they could never obtain by the arts of peace, but greatly helps the cause of despotism. In times of peace the people are apt to be impertinently clamorous for reform. But in war, they must say no more on the subject, because of the public danger. It would be ill-timed. Freedom of speech also must be checked. A thousand little restraints on liberty are admitted, without a murmur, in a time of war, that would not be borne one moment during the halcyon days of peace. Peace, in short, is productive of plenty, and plenty makes the people saucy. Peace, therefore, must not continue long after a nation has arrived at a certain degree of prosperity. This is a maxim of Despotism. Political phlebotomy is necessary in a political plethora. “Bleed them usque ad deliquium,” (said the arbitrary doctor,) “and I will undertake that in future the patient shall be more tractable.”

Erasmus, the friend of man, the restorer of civil and religious liberty, has the following passage in a Dissertation on War, lately translated into English under the title of Antipolemus:

“There are kings who go to war for no other reason than that they may with greater ease establish despotic authority over their own subjects at home. For in time of peace, the power of parliaments, the dignity of magistrates, the vigour of the laws, are great impediments to a prince who wishes to exercise arbitrary power. But when once a war is undertaken, the chief management of affairs devolves on a few, the ministers of executive government, who, for the general safety, assume the privilege of conducting every thing according to their own humour, demanding unlimited confidence. The prince's favourites are all exalted to places of honour and profit. Those whom he dislikes are turned out and neglected. Now—(the time of war) is the time for raising as much money upon the people as the despot's heart can wish.—In short—now—the time of war, is the time that they feel themselves despots in very deed and truth, not in name only, but despots with a vengeance. In the mean while, the grandees play into one another's hands, until they have eaten up the wretched people, root and branch. Do you think men of such dispositions would be backward to seize any the slightest occasion for war, so lucrative, so flattering to avarice and vanity?”

Language has found no name sufficiently expressive of the diabolical villany of wretches in high life, who, without personal provocation, in the mere wantonness of power, and for the sake of increasing what they already possess in too great abundance, rush into murder! Murder of the innocent! Murder of myriads! Murder of the stranger! neither knowing nor caring how many of their fellow-creatures, with rights to life and happiness equal to their own, are urged by poverty to shed their last drops of blood in a foreign land, far from the endearments of kindred, to gratify the pride of a few at home, whose despotic spirit insults the wretchedness it first created. There is no greater proof of human folly and weakness than that a whole people should suffer a few worthless grandees, who evidently despise and hate them, to make the world one vast slaughter-house, that the grandees may have the more room to take their insolent pastime in unmolested state. A man, a reasonable being, a Christian, plunging the bayonet, without passion, into the bowels of a man, for hire! The poor creatures who actually do this (in despotic countries) are but mechanical instruments of knaves in power. Their poverty and not their will, consents. May Heaven's sweet mercy, then, wash off the blood stains from their hands, and reserve its wrath for those whose thirst of power, which they never had a wish to use for the good of man, leads them to wade to it through seas of human gore!

Let any dispassionate man, uninfluenced by placemen, pensioners, contractors, and expectants of court favour, impartially consider, from the earliest ages to the present, the history of war. He must observe that scarcely any wars have been just and necessary; though they almost all have claimed these epithets, with a persevering formality which would excite ridicule, if ridicule were not lost in abhorrence. He will find that folly, extreme folly, wearing a crown instead of a fool's cap, has, in many countries, from the mere wantonness of mischief, cried, “Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.” He will find that in most countries (our own, of course, always excepted) war has been eagerly sought, from policy, to divert the people's attention from domestic abuse, to aggrandize those who build the fabric of their grandeur on the ruins of human happiness, and to depress, impoverish, and humble the people.

There is nothing from which the spirit of liberty has so much to fear, and consequently the spirit of despotism so much to hope, as from the prevalence of military government, supported by vast standing armies, and encouraged by alliances with military despots on the continent of Europe. The whole energy of the sound part of our free constitution should be exerted in its full force to check a proud minister, who rashly runs into a war, and notwithstanding accumulated disasters, perseveres in its prosecution. He cannot hope for victory. He must have some other motive for persevering against all rational hope. Let the people investigate the motive; and if it be inimical to liberty, let them succour her in distress, by calling in her best auxiliary, peace.


On Political Ethics; their chief Object is to throw Power into the Hands of the worst Part of Mankind, and to render Government an Institution calculated to enrich and aggrandize a few, at the expense of the Liberty, Property, and Lives of the many.

In the schools of early discipline, where youth is usually initiated in the studies of humanity, men are taught to believe that virtue is founded on eternal truth, and that the distinctions of right and wrong are as clearly definable as those between the meridian sunshine and the midnight shade. They are told, from the highest authority, that happiness is to be found in rectitude of conduct; and that under all circumstances, whatever may be the consequence, nothing can justify the dereliction of integrity. The sacred scriptures, the ancient philosophers, parental authority, the laws of their country, and the proclamations of kings, all combine to convince them that morality is founded on the rock of truth, and that governments are sincere in their professions to encourage those who do well, and be a terror only to the evil.

Why was a national church instituted and supported at a great expense, but to enforce among the people the laws of God, as paramount to all human laws, and superseding the wretched devices of state policy? Government, by entering into a strict alliance with the church, certainly engages to support the doctrines of Christian morality; and it is no less impious in a king or a minister to promote or increase any public measures repugnant to Christian morality, than it would be in the bench of bishops.

When we enter our libraries, we find ourselves surrounded with authors, celebrated for ages by the most enlightened part of the world, who teach the immutability of truth, enforce the purest doctrines of morality, and endeavour to found the dignity and happiness of human nature on the basis of virtue.

But let us leave a moment the school, the church, the library, and enter a court and a cabinet. There Machiavelian ethics prevail; and all that has been previously inculcated appears like the takes of the nursery, calculated to amuse babes, and lull them in the lap of folly. The grand object of counsellors is to support and increase the power that appoints to splendid and profitable offices, with little regard to the improvement of human affairs, the alleviation of the evils of life, and the melioration of human nature. The restraints of moral honesty, or the scruples of religion, must seldom operate on public measures so as to impede the accomplishment of this primary and momentous purpose. A little varnish is indeed used, to hide the deformity of Machiavelism; but it is so very thin, and so easily distinguished from the native colour, that it contributes, among thinking men, to increase the detestation which it was intended to extenuate.

Thus, for instance, treaties between nations commence with a most solemn avowal of good faith, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Great and mighty nations, professing Christianity, maintaining a church, and united most intimately with the church, enter into agreements, under this awful sanction, and break them without the least reluctance, whenever a cabinet minister finds it in his inclination, or imagines it his interest to cause a rupture. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are little thought of; but the great object is to strike a blow with advantage, before the adverse nation is on its guard, and while it is relying on the treaty.

Another instance of political religion is conspicuous in the prevailing practice of rendering the emoluments of the church subservient to the minister, in securing him a majority, and facilitating what is called his principal duty, the management of the senate.

The Roman pontiffs, while in the rank of inferior clergy, and even of cardinals, have exhibited the appearance of great piety, and a religious regard to truth and justice; but when advanced to the triple mitre, and become, in fact, kings, they have usually become perfectly secular in their public conduct at home, and in their connections with surrounding nations, and have pleaded, in excuse, state necessity. But can any necessity arise to violate the eternal laws of truth and justice? Is religion a leaden rule, in the hands strong enough to bend it to their various purposes? Pope Julius the Second appears to have been one of the very worst princes that ever reigned. He delighted in war, while he professed to be the representative of the Prince of Peace. He was guilty of oppression and injustice; and while he pretended to be feeding the sheep of Christ, gave himself no other concern but how he might secure the fleece. Yet all his conduct was palliated, by the politicians around him, from the plea of state necessity. Morality and religion gave way to the system of political ethics; and he, who ought to have blessed mankind, and to have preached peace, became their oppressor, despot, and unrelenting murderer. I mention Julius only as a striking instance, and hundreds may be adduced, of the depraved system which rules cabinets, and which, for the gratification of the few, renders the many miserable. No Machiavels can ever justify, in the eyes of God, or of men uninfluenced by corruption, any politics, however subtle and able, which, for the sake of aggrandizing a nation, (an abstract idea,) much less of gratifying a court, render all the individuals of the nation so to be aggrandized, poor, wretched, insecure, and slavish.

Let us suppose a nation entering most eagerly, and without listening one moment to terms of accommodation, into a most dangerous war, professedly to exterminate the bad principles and morals of a neighbouring people, and to defend law, order, and religion. It is impossible to imagine but that a nation acting in this manner, and with this profession, must regulate all its own public conduct, especially in a war of this kind, according to the strictest law, order, and religion.

Will that nation oppose an armed neutrality, instituted to prevent the interruption of neutral commerce? Will she maintain her reputation for justice, if she should be the first and most violent in destroying this neutrality? Will she break the law of nations, by insulting ambassadors? Will she take up arms, and actually fight in defence of popery, after professing herself at the head of protestantism, and the opposer of all intolerant superstition? Will she, after declaring herself the friend of order, religion, and liberty, enter into alliances with and subsidize the plunderers and oppressors of Poland? Will she, pluming herself upon the love of order and religion, and detesting the cruelty of the nation with whom she is at war, suffer Asia to be pillaged, and its inhabitants to be slaughtered by her own sons; or encourage the Indians to attack her brethren in North America; or hire mercenaries of German princes to do the work of death, in a contest in which they have no immediate concern? Will she endeavour to starve a whole nation, with whom she is at war, not only the rulers and warriors, but infants, women, and old people, by preventing the importation of corn? Will she forge assignats? Will she continue the slave trade?

A conduct like this appears to be not only inconsistent with the pretended defence of law, order, and religion, but at once proceeding from the spirit of despotism, and promotive of it. It is certain that a man in private life, acting in this manner, would be thought a bad man, a man destitute of principle, and with whom it would be scarcely less dangerous to be on terms of professed friendship than of open enmity. But actions do not alter their nature with the paucity or multiplicity of the actors; and a nation may be guilty of perfidy, as atrocious and contemptible in its nature as an individual, and infinitely more mischievous. Certainly the advisers and abettors of such conduct do not take the most effectual means of recommending to mankind that monarchy which they wage war to reestablish. They are hurting the cause of kings in the minds of independent men and of posterity, while they blindly appear to themselves to be promoting it with the greatest energy.

Whatever may be urged by sophists or politicians, it is certain that the great eternal laws of truth and justice cannot be violated with impunity. The violation may answer some sordid and temporary purpose; but in the end, it must be injurious, if not fatal. Truth, like the sun in the heavens, is one. The clouds indeed are variegated; but then they are insubstantial, and of momentary existence. So is falsehood. It can assume any colour. But time causes the hues to fade; and truth bursts forth with new effulgence. We see despotism gradually with-drawing from the finest countries of Europe. It must depart, at last, from all, for it is opposed by reason and nature. They who endeavour to render it permanent, labour in vain; but at the same time, they may detain it a while, and cause, in the interval, misery and carnage.

Let us reject all Machiavelism, all political ethics, that contradict the acknowledged principles of truth and moral honesty. There can be no legitimate government which is not founded and supported by systems of conduct favourable to the happiness of human creatures,—the great mass of the people. Good government cannot be formed on the basis of falsehood and chicanery. Let the government of England ever stand on the square, solid, upright pedestals of truth and justice, and it must defy every shock, but the convulsion of the world's dissolution.