The Dangers which Menace States

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The Dangers which Menace States  (1831) 
by Robert Peel
The speech given by Sir Robert Peel MP in opposition to the Reform Act eventually passed in 1832. Given in the House of Commons on 3 March 1831. This speech is abridged.

We should do well to consider, before we consent to the condemnation of own institutions, what are the dangers which menace states with ruin or decay. Compare our fate with other countries of Europe during the period of the last century and a half. Not one has been exempt from the miseries of foreign invasion, scarcelyone has preserved its independence inviolate. In how many have there been changes of the dynasty, or the severest conflicts between the several orders of the state?

In this country we have had to encounter severe trials, and have encountered them with uniform success. Amid foreign wars, the shock of disputed successions, rebellion at home, extreme distress, the bitter contention of parties, the institutions of this country have stood uninjured. The ambition of military conquerors - of men endeared, by success, to disciplined armies, never have endangered, and never could endanger the supremacy of the law, or master the control of public opinion. These were the powerful instruments that shattered with impunity the staff of Marlborough, and crumbled into dust the power of Wellington.

Other states have fallen from the too great influence of a military spirit, and the absorption of power by standing armies. What is the character of the armies which our commanders led to victory? The most formidable engines that skill or valour could direct against a foreign enemy; but in peace, the pliant, submissive instruments of civil power. 'Give us,' says the member for Waterford, 'give us for the repression of outrage and insurrection the regular army, for the people respect it for its courage, and love it for its courteous forbearance, and patience, and ready subjection to the law.' And what, sir, are the practical advantages which we are now promised, as the consequence of the change we are invited to make, as the compensation for the risk we must incur? Positively not one.

Up to this hour, no one has pretended that we shall gain anything by the change, excepting, indeed, that we shall conciliate the public favour. Why, no doubt, you cannot propose to share your power with half a million of men without gaining some popularity - without purchasing by such a bribe some portion of goodwill. But these are vulgar arts of government; others will outbid you, not now, but at no remote period - they will offer votes and power to a million of men, will quote your precedent for the concession, and will carry your principles to their legitimate and natural consequences. (Portion of speech omitted)

Let us never be tempted to resign the well-tempered freedom with which we enjoy, in the ridiculous pursuit of the wild liberty which France has established. What avails that liberty that has neither justice nor wisdom for its companions - which neither brings peace nor prosperity in its train? It was the duty of the King's government to abstain from agitating this question at such a period as the present - to abstain from the excitement throughout this land of that conflict - God grant that it may only be a moral conflict! - which must arise between the possessors of existing privileges, and those to whom they are to be transferred. It was the duty of the government to calm, not to stimulate, the fever of popular excitement. They have adopted a different course - they have sent through the land the firebrand of agitation, and no one can now recall it. Let us hope that there are limits to their powers of mischief. They have, like the giant enemy of the Philistines, lighted three hundred brands, and scattered through the country discord and dismay; but God forbid that they should, like him, have the power to concentrate in death all the energies that belong to life, and to signalize their own destruction by bowing to the earth the pillars of that sacred edifice, which contains within its walls, according even to their own admission, 'the noblest society of freemen in the world'.

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.