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him but understand his subject, the language he speaks, and be convinced of the truths he delivers. It is amazing to what heights eloquence of this kind may reach. This is that eloquence the ancients represented as lightning, bearing down every opposer; this the power which has turned whole assemblies into astonishment, admiration, and awe-that is described by the torrent, the flame, and every other instance of irresistible impetuosity. (1)
But to attempt such noble heights belongs only to the truly great, or the truly good. To discard the lazy manner of reading sermons, or speaking sermons by rote; to set up singly against the opposition of men who are attached to their own errors, and to endeavour to be great instead of being prudent, are qualities we seldom see united. A minister of the Church of England, who may be possessed of good sense and some hopes of preferment, will seldom give up such substantial advantages for the empty pleasure of improving society. By his present method he is liked by his friends, admired by his dependants, not displeasing to his bishop; he lives as well, eats and sleeps as well, as if a real orator, and an eager asserter of his mission: he will hardly, therefore, venture all this to be called, perhaps, an enthusiast; nor will he depart from customs established by the brotherhood, when, by such a conduct, he only singles himself out for their contempt.
(I) [Would I describe a preacher, such as Paul,
Were he on earth, would hear, approve, and own-
And tender in address, as well becomes
A messenger of grace to guilty men."-COWPER.]
CUSTOM AND LAWS COMPARED.
What, say some, can give us a more contemptible idea of a large state than to find it mostly governed by custom; to have few written laws, and no boundaries to mark the jurisdiction between the senate and people? Among the number who speak in this manner is the great Montesquieu, who asserts, that every nation is free in proportion to the number of its written laws, and seems to hint at a despotic and arbitrary conduct in the present king of Prussia, who has abridged the laws of his country into a very short compass.
As Tacitus and Montesquieu happen to differ in sentiment upon a subject of so much importance, (for the Roman expressly asserts, that the state is generally vicious in proportion to the number of its laws); it will not be amiss to examine it a little more minutely, and see whether a state, which, like England, is burthened with a multiplicity of written laws; or which, like Switzerland, Geneva, and some other republics, is governed by custom and the determination of the judge, is best.
And to prove the superiority of custom to written law, we shall at least find history conspiring. Custom, or the traditional observance of the practice of their forefathers, was what directed the Romans, as well in their public as private determinations. Custom was appealed to in pronouncing sentence against a criminal, where part of the formulary was more majorum. So Sallust, speaking of the expulsion of Tarquin, says, mutato more, and not lege mutata; and Virgil, pacisque imponere morem. So that, in those times of the empire, in which the people retained their liberty, they were governed by custom; when they sunk into oppression and tyranny, they were restrained by new laws, and the laws of tradition abolished.
As getting the ancients on our side is half a victory, it will not be amiss to fortify the argument with an observaof Chrysostom's; that "the enslaved are the fittest to be governed by laws, and free men by custom." Custom partakes of the nature of parental injunction; it is kept by the people themselves, and observed with a willing obedience. The observance of it must, therefore, be a mark of freedom, and coming originally to a state from the reverenced founders of its liberty, will be an encouragement and assistance to it in the defence of that blessing; but a conquered people, a nation of slaves, must pretend to none of this freedom, or these happy distinctions, having, by degeneracy, lost all right to their brave forefathers' free institutions, their masters will in policy take the forfeiture; and the fixing a conquest must be done by giving laws, which may every moment serve to remind the people enslaved of their conquerors; nothing being more dangerous than to trust a late-subdued people with old customs, that presently upbraid their degeneracy, and provoke them to revolt.
The wisdom of the Roman republic, in their veneration for custom, and backwardness to introduce a new law, was perhaps the cause of their long continuance, and of the virtues of which they have set the world so many examples. But, to shew in what that wisdom consists, it may be proper to observe, that the benefit of new-written laws are merely confined to the consequences of their observance; but customary laws, keeping up a veneration for the founders, engage men in the imitation of their virtues as well as policy. To this may be ascribed the religious regard the Romans paid to their forefathers' memory, and their adhering for so many ages to the practice of the same virtues; which nothing contributed more to efface, than the introduction of a voluminous body of new laws over the neck of venerable custom.
The simplicity, conciseness, and antiquity of custom gives an air of majesty and immutability that inspires awe and veneration; but new laws are too apt to be voluminous, perplexed, and indeterminate; whence must necessarily arise neglect, contempt, and ignorance.
As every human institution is subject to gross imperfections, so laws must necessarily be liable to the same inconveniences, and their defects soon discovered. Thus, through the weakness of one part, all the rest are liable to be brought into contempt. But such weaknesses in a custom, for very obvious reasons, evade an examination; besides, a friendly prejudice always stands up in their favour.
But, let us suppose a new law to be perfectly equitable and necessary; yet, if the procurers of it have betrayed a conduct that confesses by-ends and private motives, the disgust to the circumstances disposes us, unreasonably indeed, to an irreverence of the law itself; but we are indulgently blind to the most visible imperfections of an old custom. Though we perceive the defects ourselves, yet we remain persuaded that our wise forefathers had good reasons for what they did; and though such motives no longer continue, the benefit will still go along with the observance, though we do not know how. It is thus the Roman lawyers speak; "Non omnium quæ a majoribus constituta sunt, ratio reddi potest, et ideo rationes eorum quæ constituuntur inquiri non oportet, aliaquin multa eo his quæ certa sunt subvertuntur."
Those laws which preserve to themselves the greatest love and observance, must needs be best; but custom, as it executes itself, must be necessarily superior to written laws in this respect, which are to be executed by another. Thus, nothing can be more certain than that numerous written laws are a sign of a degenerate community, and are frequently not the consequences of vicious morals in a state, but the causes.
Hence we see how much greater benefit it would be to the state rather to abridge than increase its laws. We every day find them increasing; acts and reports, which may be termed the acts of judges, are every day becoming more voluminous, and loading the subject with new penalties. Laws ever increase in number and severity, until they at length are strained so tight as to break themselves. Such was the case of the latter empire, whose laws were at length become so strict, that the barbarous invaders did not bring servitude but liberty.
OF THE PRIDE AND LUXURY OF THE MIDDLING CLASS OF PEOPLE.(1)
Of all the follies and absurdities which this great metropolis labours under, there is not one, I believe, which at present appears in a more glaring and ridiculous light, than the pride and luxury of the middling class of people: their eager desire of being seen in a sphere far above their capacities and circumstances is daily, nay, hourly instanced by the prodigious numbers of mechanics who flock to the races, gaming-tables, brothels, and all public diversions this fashionable town affords.
You shall see a grocer, or a tallow-chandler, sneak from behind the counter, clap on a laced coat and a bag, fly to the E. O. table, throw away fifty pieces with some sharping man of quality, while his industrious wife is selling a pennyworth of sugar, or a pound of candles, to support her fashionable spouse in his extravagances.
I was led into this reflection by an odd adventure, which happened to me the other day at Epsom races, (2) whither I
(1) [First published in the Literary Magazine.']
(2) [“ Epsom ranks first after Newmarket. No less than 114 colts were entered for the last Derby stakes, and 97 fillies for the Oakes; their owners