A Blupete Biography Page

"Rackets and Tea":
The Life and Writings
of William Hazlitt (1778-1830).
[TOC -- Hazlitt's Page]

Chapter Two
"Bentham, Godwin and French Revolution of 1789."

In an appendix to this work, I have already set out my thoughts on the life and works of Jeremy Bentham; however, it is necessary that the reader has some knowledge of Bentham, before proceeding with this work on Hazlitt. It was during 1776, that Bentham brought out his first major work, A Fragment on Government. Bentham figured that laws should be socially useful and not merely reflect the status quo; and, that while he believed that men inevitably pursue pleasure and avoid pain, Bentham thought it to be a "sacred truth" that "the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation." Twelve years later, in 1789, Bentham came out with another work, Principles of Morals and Legislation. In this work Bentham strove "to cut a new road through the wilds of jurisprudence." In it, he reasserted and further elaborated on the idea that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should govern our judgment of every institution and action. Thus it was Bentham's view that there was a need for coercive law to control men's activities. Bentham's doctrines were wrapped up in the expression, utilitarianism. While it never was much to take effect during the lives of Bentham and Hazlitt, utilitarianism was to have an increasing impact on law-making in the last three quarters of the 19th century and as much again (more intensely) in the 20th.

As for Bentham's view of legislation, Hazlitt wrote:

"The gentleman is himself a capital logician; and he has been led by this circumstance to consider man as a logical animal. We fear this view of the matter will hardly hold water. If we attend to the moral man, the constitution of his mind will scarcely be found to be built up of pure reason and a regard to consequences: if we consider the criminal man (with whom the legislator has chiefly to do), it will be found to be still less so."1
Hazlitt points out that criminals and legislators are quite a different species, and continues:
"Mr Bentham, in adjusting the provisions of a penal code, lays too little stress on the co-operation of the natural prejudices of mankind ... The laws of the country are therefore ineffectual and abortive, because they are made by the rich for the poor, by the wise for the ignorant, by the respectable and exalted in station for the very scum and refuse of the community."
People value the good opinion of others and of their place in their family and in their society. It is for shame, not fear, that people obey laws. Hazlitt:
"You tell a person [a drunk, an idler, a gambler, a culprit, or a criminal] of this stamp what is in his interest; he says he does not care about his interest, or the world and he differ on that particular. But there is one point on which he must agree with them, namely, what they think of his conduct, and that is the only hold you have of him. A man may be callous and indifferent to what happens to himself; but he is never indifferent to public opinion or proof against open scorn and infamy.
Shame, then, not fear, is the sheet-anchor of the law ... It is the apprehension of being stigmatized by public opinion, the fear of what will be thought and said of them, that deters men from the violation of the laws, while their character remains unimpeached; but honour once lost, all is lost. The man can never be himself again! A citizen is like a soldier, a part of a machine, who submits to certain hardships, privations, and dangers, not for his own ease, pleasure, profit, or even conscience, but - for shame."
Next, it is necessary for me to say a few words on William Godwin: The connection that Godwin had with Shelley's literary circle is much more interesting; I do not deal with it at this place.2 Hazlitt's dealings with Godwin, though their lives overlapped, had more to do with Godwin's ideas than with him personally. Godwin's work, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice, or more simply as Political Justice came out, when Hazlitt was but fifteen years of age and years were to pass before Hazlitt gave his views on it. Political Justice came out in 1793; it marked the beginning point of the English Romantic Movement.

As for Godwin's philosophy: Godwin followed along in the footsteps of Rousseau in his nostalgia for the simple and the primitive. Godwin could foresee for mankind a perfect equality and happiness; he believed in the perfectibility of man; he believed that it would be impossible to be rationally persuaded and not act accordingly, and that therefore, men ultimately could live in harmony without law and institutions. "Since government even in its best state is an evil, the object to be principally aimed at is that we should have as little of it as the general peace of society will permit." Godwin foresaw a time when "there will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Besides this, there would be neither disease, anguish, melancholy nor resentment. Every man will seek with ineffable ardour the good of all."

Professor C. H. Herford:

"... Godwin saw in government, in law, even in property, and in marriage, only restraints upon liberty and obstacles to progress. Yet Godwin was not, strictly speaking, an anarchist. He transfered the seat of government from thrones and parliament to the reason in the breast of every man. On the power of reason, working freely, to convince all the armed unreason of the world and to subdue all its teeming passion, he rested his boundless confidence in the 'perfectibility' of man --."3
To Godwin, reason was the principal ground of action; it is "the guide, the stay, and anchor of our purest thoughts, and soul of all our moral being." While there can be no question as to the value of the human faculty of reason, to Godwin it was "the queen of the moral world, the soul of the universe, the lamp of human life, the pillar of society, the foundation of law, the beacon of nations, the golden chain let down from heaven ..." The proposition that we should all strive to act on the basis of reason, is one which few of us would disagree; but a separate question is this: -- do persons act according to reason?

Two famous men of letters, one from France, the other from Scotland -- both of whom had died years before Godwin brought out his Political Justice in 1793 -- had already stated the philosophical view that it is passion that rules the hearts and actions of men. Voltaire: "Passions are the winds which fill the sails of the vessel; sometimes they sink it; but without them it would be impossible to make way." Hume: "Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

The question of what drives a person to action, -- whatever the nature of that action -- is a question that goes back to classic times. Hazlitt, in his essay, "On Genius and Common Sense," expressed the view that man, in all his important activities, generally is not motivated by "hasty, dogmatical, self-satisfied reason," indeed, reason is worse than "idle fancy, or bigoted prejudice. ... In art, in taste, in life, in speech, you decide from feeling, and not from reason. ... Reason is the interpreter and critic of nature and genius, not their law-giver and judge. He must be a poor creature indeed whose practical convictions do not in almost all cases outrun his deliberate understanding, or does not feel and know much more than he can give reason for."

Godwin's opinions, as he set forth in Political Justice, were, for the time, 1793, extreme opinions. Hazlitt, in 1819, said that no "work in our time gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country." According to Hazlitt, Godwin "raised the standard of morality above the reach of humanity."4

"The author of the Political Justice took abstract reason for the rule of conduct and abstract good for its end. He places the human mind on an elevation, from which it commands a view of the whole line of moral consequences; and requires it to conform its acts to the larger and more enlightened conscience which it has thus acquired. He absolves man from the gross and narrow ties of sense, custom, authority, private and local attachment, in order that he may devote himself to the boundless pursuit of universal benevolence."
I might add, by way of summation, to point out the principal similarity and difference of Bentham and Godwin on these matters. The two resembled one another in their "blind contempt for the past." While each preached the need for nonviolent revolution, each had a different following. Bentham's revolution was to be effected by legislation, Godwin's by argument.

There were those however, who thought that not much of anything would be achieved by way of a nonviolent revolution. Frenchmen in these times, in their native country, who by and large were not part of the privileged class, thought the only way to deal with despotic rule is to kill the leaders and start anew.

French Revolution

France had a number of brilliant economic thinkers whose thoughts were ignored, or, more likely, never studied by the political demagogues which proliferated in France during the last of the 18th and the first half of the 19th century. There was Quesnay (1694-1774) who had founded a school which had struck upon the first complete system of Economics. Quesnay began his economic studies in 1756, when he wrote for the Encyclopedie. The physiocrats stressed that absolute freedom of trade was essential to guarantee the most beneficial operation of economic law, which they considered immutable. The physiocrats likely took their cue from their fellow Frenchmen, such as Voltaire (1694-1778), the very "embodiment of the 18th-century enlightenment." Then there was the political writings of the French philosopher and jurist, Montesquieu (1689-1755), who, having studied the political writings of the Englishman, John Locke (1632-1704), was much impressed by the British constitution. Montesquieu wrote the classic, The Spirit of Laws published in 1748, where, in it, he compared the republican, despotic, and monarchical forms of government and in doing so was to reveal the influence that John Locke had on him.

Notwithstanding the brilliant insights of these French political writers, France had long experienced an absolute monarchy and its attending aristocratic order. It was not, however, the concept of monarchial rule that brought France into revolutionary times; it was the abuses of the monarchial rule that had then existed in France for some period of time, or, more particularly, the spending habits of Louis XV and XVI, and the resulting tax load that the ordinary people of France were forced to bear. Mobs of people do not respond to fine arguments about human rights as may be developed by learned men; they respond to demagogues who are put in a position to point to obvious examples of a disrupted economy, to point to the few that have leisure and who conspicuously consume so much of the nation's wealth, to point to those who create the nation's wealth and who have, what little they have, taxed away to support but those who assist, countenance and back the corrupt regime. In the days under review, the revenue of government (whether it was of the monarchial variety or of those that followed) was raised by taxing goods as they were visibly moved through the ports and cities; it is not that income tax was not thought of, in those days, it is just that a system of income taxes could not be implemented for lack of adequate reporting systems, as, unfortunately, is the case these days. Those that ran France needed money to implement their totalitarian schemes and so they got their money by forcing the merchants to hand over money as a tax on goods, which, of course, the merchant passed on to the poor French consumers. Taxes on goods occurred within the country, from one region to another, and, at the borders upon foreign goods. The main reason for taxes, is, because the ruling regime needs it to keep itself and its programmes going. There were however those -- and they and their views were invariably supported by those who were the beneficiaries of government largesse -- who argued that it was a good idea to tax "foreign goods" as an assist to the producers of "home goods." The main observation that Adam Smith had made when he travelled in France, just before he saw to the publication of his great work, in 1776, was that the country was suffering from stifling taxes resulting in "both the restraints upon the interior commerce of the country and the number of the revenue officers ..."5 This situation was brought on -- never mind that the French economistes had raised the alarm -- simply because those in power wanted money to advance their own ends. Bagehot put it best, when he wrote:

"They [the French economistes] delighted in proving that the whole structure of the French laws upon industry was utterly wrong; that the prohibitions ought not to be imposed on the import of foreign manufacturers; that bounties ought not to be given to native ones; that the exportation of corn ought to be free; that the whole country ought to be a fiscal unit; that there should be no duty between any province; and so on in other cases. No one could state the abstract doctrines on which they rested everything more clearly. "Acheter, c'est vendre,' said Quesnay, the founder of the school, 'vendre, c'est acheter.' You cannot better express the doctrine of modern political economy that 'trade is barter.' 'Do not attempt,' Quesnay continues, 'to fix the price of your products, goods, or services; they will escape your rules. Competition alone can regulate prices with equity; it alone restricts them to a moderation which varies little; it alone attracts with certainty provisions where they are wanted or labour where it is required.' 'That which we call dearness is the only remedy of dearness: dearness causes plenty.'"6
So it was, that the French Revolution came about because the ruling power failed to listen to the good economic advice that was readily available to it. The people revolted, not because they understood that the structure of the French laws upon industry, viz., control and taxation, was wrong; but rather because that the masses of people were to feel the bad effects of it. Sadly, however, the result of the revolution, as is the usual case, it seems, was but to get rid of one form of totalitarianism for another. The spending habits of each were just as bad: the one in pursuit of royal luxury and the other in pursuit of the impossible dream. Revenue officers still swarmed across the country side and the commerce of this naturally rich country suffered in the same old way due to the burden of taxation.

At Paris, in and around 1789, a group of individuals coalesced. This group shared the same principles, "the principles of extreme democracy and absolute equality." Their views, it was thought, were, as far as politics go, extreme and radical in regards to social organization. This republican club met at Paris in the old convent of the Jacobins. Thus it was, that, in June of 1789, the French Revolution against the nobility and the clergy formally began. The States-General constituting itself as a majority against the ruling classes, defiantly proclaimed itself the National Assembly and took power onto itself. The storming of the Bastille came in July, after which Louis XVI recognized the legal existence of the Constituent Assembly, as the new National Assembly was called. The assembly adopted the "Declaration of the Rights of Man," and drafted a new constitution, one that does allow for a limited monarchy, which, of course the king does not immediately recognise.

The abuses of the ancient regime, while bad enough, did not compare with the tyranny and despotism that came as an aftermath to the French Revolution. Through metamorphic events -- States General, the National Assembly, the Jacobins, the Revolutionary tribunal, the guillotine, and the rise of Napoleon -- between the execution of Louis XVI in 1793 and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 -- blood, death and misery flowed over France. No matter what the French intellectuals had written and were writing, all of it was ignored by the tyrants as not serving their purpose in the pursuit of power. Through these years in France there was a war to be fought, and, war "means an ugly mob-madness, crucifying the truth-tellers, choking the artists, sidetracking reforms, revolutions, and working of social forces."7

Hazlitt as a young boy was sent off to Liverpool away from his family in Wem. Howe gives the accounting of how a lady (no names were given by Howe) came from Liverpool, on whatever business, and paid a visit to the Hazlitt family then located at Wem. This lady "was wonderfully taken" with young William and made arrangements with the family for him to spend some time with her in Liverpool.
"To Liverpool he went. But he soon found that he was not made so much of there as he had been at Wem. The lady went out visiting, leaving him at home by himself: and, in short, the child of nine years old thought himself slighted: he became sullen: and this sullenness continued ever after, and formed the predominant feature in his character during the remainder of his schoolboy days. He now showed his talent for satire, mimicry, and caricature. By the time he was twelve or thirteen, he would not attend the devotions of the family. He would not go to chapel. He would shut himself up from the rest of the family: be seen by no one during the day: but at night he would ramble forth no one knew where: and in the moonlight nights he used to scamper about the fields, like, as my informant says, any wild thing."8
So I think we might trace it back to 1788-90, when Hazlitt took an unexpected turn in the development of his character. Was it, at this very tender age, that he was following the French Revolution and asked inappropriate questions to an adult in charge. Was it in the local church at Liverpool that his innocence was lost? Who can say? It is but speculation as to what transpired during Hazlitt's boyhood. In any event, he got back to his family safely after his stay in Liverpool, a stay, I should not think, that was extensive. From that point, as were noted by Howe, there were changes in Hazlitt's makeup, whether for good or bad.
[Next: Chapter Three -- "The Times -- 1791-95."]

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1 This is taken from Hazlitt's essay, "Jeremy Bentham" and represents of Hazlitt's thoughts on Bentham written more than thirty years after Bentham wrote his books. This essay on Bentham came out in Hazlitt's work, The Spirit of the Age which was first published in 1825.

2 Start with my work on Shelley.

3 The Age of Wordsworth (London: Bell, 1916) at pp. 7-8.

4 The quotes are taken from Hazlitt's Essay on Godwin as found in The Spirit of the Age.

5 The Wealth of Nations.

6 Biographical Studies (London: Longmans, Green; 1889) at p. 254.

7 John Reed, Whose War? (1917) as attributed by Mencken in his Dictionary of Quotations (1942).

8 Howe, pp. 37-8.


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Peter Landry