The Ancien Regime by Charles Kingsley


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The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Ancien Regime, by Charles Kingsley

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with
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with this eBook or online at

Title: The Ancien Regime

Author: Charles Kingsley

Release Date: May 13, 2005 [eBook #1335]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ISO-646-US (US-ASCII)


Transcribed from the 1902 "Historical Lectures and Essays" Macmillan and
Co. edition by David Price, email

by Charles Kingsley


The rules of the Royal Institution forbid (and wisely) religious or
political controversy. It was therefore impossible for me in these
Lectures, to say much which had to be said, in drawing a just and
complete picture of the Ancien Regime in France. The passages inserted
between brackets, which bear on religious matters, were accordingly not
spoken at the Royal Institution.

But more. It was impossible for me in these Lectures, to bring forward
as fully as I could have wished, the contrast between the continental
nations and England, whether now, or during the eighteenth century. But
that contrast cannot be too carefully studied at the present moment. In
proportion as it is seen and understood, will the fear of revolution (if
such exists) die out among the wealthier classes; and the wish for it (if
such exists) among the poorer; and a large extension of the suffrage will
be looked on as--what it actually is--a safe and harmless concession to
the wishes--and, as I hold, to the just rights--of large portion of the
British nation.

There exists in Britain now, as far as I can see, no one of those evils
which brought about the French Revolution. There is no widespread
misery, and therefore no widespread discontent, among the classes who
live by hand-labour. The legislation of the last generation has been
steadily in favour of the poor, as against the rich; and it is even more
true now than it was in 1789, that--as Arthur Young told the French mob
which stopped his carriage--the rich pay many taxes (over and above the
poor-rates, a direct tax on the capitalist in favour of the labourer)
more than are paid by the poor. "In England" (says M. de Tocqueville of
even the eighteenth century) "the poor man enjoyed the privilege of
exemption from taxation; in France, the rich." Equality before the law
is as well-nigh complete as it can be, where some are rich and others
poor; and the only privileged class, it sometimes seems to me, is the
pauper, who has neither the responsibility of self-government, nor the
toil of self-support.

A minority of malcontents, some justly, some unjustly, angry with the
present state of things, will always exist in this world. But a majority
of malcontents we shall never have, as long as the workmen are allowed to
keep untouched and unthreatened their rights of free speech, free public
meeting, free combination for all purposes which do not provoke a breach
of the peace. There may be (and probably are) to be found in London and
the large towns, some of those revolutionary propagandists who have
terrified and tormented continental statesmen since the year 1815. But
they are far fewer in number than in 1848; far fewer still (I believe)
than in 1831; and their habits, notions, temper, whole mental
organisation, is so utterly alien to that of the average Englishman, that
it is only the sense of wrong which can make him take counsel with them,
or make common cause with them. Meanwhile, every man who is admitted to
a vote, is one more person withdrawn from the temptation to disloyalty,
and enlisted in maintaining the powers that be--when they are in the
wrong, as well as when they are in the right. For every Englishman is by
his nature conservative; slow to form an opinion; cautious in putting it
into effect; patient under evils which seem irremediable; persevering in
abolishing such as seem remediable; and then only too ready to acquiesce
in the earliest practical result; to "rest and be thankful." His faults,
as well as his virtues, make him anti-revolutionary. He is generally too
dull to take in a great idea; and if he does take it in, often too
selfish to apply it to any interest save his own. But now and then, when
the sense of actual injury forces upon him a great idea, like that of
Free-trade or of Parliamentary Reform, he is indomitable, however slow
and patient, in translating his thought into fact: and they will not be
wise statesmen who resist his dogged determination. If at this moment he
demands an extension of the suffrage eagerly and even violently, the wise
statesman will give at once, gracefully and generously, what the
Englishman will certainly obtain one day, if he has set his mind upon it.
If, on the other hand, he asks for it calmly, then the wise statesman
(instead of mistaking English reticence for apathy) will listen to his
wishes all the more readily; seeing in the moderation of the demand, the
best possible guarantee for moderation in the use of the thing demanded.

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