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Essay 2 by David Hume Part 1

The Freedom of the Press Icon

January 2, 2020

The extreme liberty that we enjoy in Britain surprises foreigners the most.

We can say whatever we want to the public and openly censure every measure by the king or his ministers.

If the administration resolves to go to war, they either wilfully or ignorantly mistake the interests of the nation. This is because peace is currently infinitely preferable. If our ministers prefer peace, our political writers breathe nothing but war and devastation. They represent the pacific conduct of the government as mean.

This liberty is not present in any other government, either republican or monarchical in Holland, Venice, France or Spain.

Great Britain alone enjoys this privilege because of our mixed form of government, which is neither wholly monarchical nor wholly republican.

Those two extremes in government, liberty and slavery, are similar to each other.

  • As you depart from the extremes, and mix a little of monarchy with liberty, the government becomes always the more free.
  • On the other hand, when you mix a little of liberty with monarchy, the yoke becomes always the more grievous and intolerable.

The French government is absolute. Law, custom, and religion concur to make the people fully satisfied with their condition. The monarch cannot entertain any jealousy against his subjects. He therefore tends to indulge them in great liberties both of speech and action.

In a republican government, such as that of Holland, there is no magistrate so eminent as to give jealousy to the state. There is no danger in entrusting the magistrates with large discretionary powers. Many advantages result from such powers, in preserving peace and order. Yet they lay a considerable restraint on men’s actions, and make every private citizen pay a great respect to the government.

Thus, the two extremes of absolute monarchy and of a republic, approach near to each other in some material circumstances. In the first, the magistrate has no jealousy of the people: in the second, the people have none of the magistrate: Which want° of jealousy begets a mutual confidence and trust in both cases, and produces a species of liberty in monarchies, and of arbitrary power in republics.

To justify the other part of the foregoing observation, that, in every government, the means are most wide of each other, and that the mixtures of monarchy and liberty render the yoke either more easy or more grievous;

I must take notice of a remark in Tacitus with regard to the Romans under the emperors, that they neither could bear total slavery nor total liberty, Nec totam servitutem, nec totam libertatem pati possunt.2 This remark a celebrated poet has translated and applied to the English, in his lively description of queen Elizabeth’s policy and government.

According to these remarks, we are to consider the Roman government under the emperors as a mixture of despotism and liberty, where the despotism prevailed; and the English government as a mixture of the same kind, where the liberty predominates.

The consequences are conformable to the foregoing observation; and such as may be expected from those mixed forms of government, which beget a mutual watchfulness and jealousy.

The Roman emperors were the most frightful tyrants. Their cruelty was chiefly excited by:

  • their jealousy
  • them observing that the great men of Rome were unhappy being dominated by a family which was not superior to their own in the recent past.

The republican part of the government prevails in England, though with a great mixture of monarchy. To preserve itself, it must:

  • maintain a watchful jealousy over the magistrates,
  • remove all discretionary powers, and
  • secure every one’s life and fortune by general and inflexible laws.

The only crimes are the ones deemed as crimes by the law. Each crime must have evidence before its judges. Even these judges must be fellow-subjects of the criminal. They are obliged, by their own interest, to watch over the encroachments and violence of the ministers. These lead to much liberty and even licentiousness in Great Britain, as there was formerly slavery and tyranny in Rome. These then lead to the great freedom of the press.

Arbitrary power would enter if we not careful to prevent its progress. and were there not an easy method of conveying the alarm from one end of the kingdom to the other. The spirit of the people must frequently be rouzed, in order to curb the ambition of the court; and the dread of rouzing this spirit must be employed to prevent that ambition.

The freedom of the press is most effective in preventing arbitrary power. The nation’s learning, wit, and genius may be employed on the side of freedom for its defence.

As long, therefore, as the republican part of our government can maintain itself against the monarchical, it will naturally be careful to keep the press open, as of importance to its own preservation.

It must however be allowed, that the unbounded liberty of the press, though it be difficult, perhaps impossible, to propose a suitable remedy for it, is one of the evils, attending those mixt forms of government.

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