Home > Uncategorized > William Hazlitt: Keystone of indestructible war-system: Closing up the avenues to peace, shutting the gates of mercy on mankind

William Hazlitt: Keystone of indestructible war-system: Closing up the avenues to peace, shutting the gates of mercy on mankind


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

William Hazlitt: Selections on war


William Hazlitt
From Illustrations of Vetus (1813)

We agree with the sentiment with which he commences his last Letter, that it is ”particularly desirable to follow up the question of peace” at the present crisis, but not with the reason which he assigns for his extreme anxiety to enter upon the question, “because this is just the moment to dread the entertainment of a pacific overture.” We can readily believe that at no other moment than when he dreads its approach, would Vetus ever breathe a syllable on the subject of peace, and then only to avert it. Whenever “a spurious and mawkish beneficence” an alarm of peace sounds, the dogs of war stand ready on the slip to hunt it down.


That which is here said to be the only legitimate basis of a treaty is one, which if admitted and acted upon, would make it impossible that any treaty should ever be formed. It is a basis, not of lasting peace, but of endless war. To call that the basis of a treaty which precludes the possibility of any concession or compensation, of every consideration either of the right or power of each party to retain its actual acquisitions, is one of those misnomers which the gravity of Vetus’s manner makes his readers overlook…We quarrel with France on continental grounds; we strip her of her colonies to support the quarrel; and yet we refuse to restore any part of them, in order to secure peace. If so, we are only ostensible parties in the contest, and in reality robbers…But still more preposterous is the madness or malice of the assertion, that no peace can be made by a wise nation, which is not a living record of their own superiority. This is the key-stone which makes up the arch of Vetus’s indestructible war-system. Can it have escaped even the short-sighted logic of this writer that to make superiority an indispensable condition of a wise peace is to proscribe peace altogether, because certainly this superiority cannot belong at the same time to both parties, and yet we conceive that the consent of both parties is necessary to a peace? Any other peace, we are told, than that which is at times impracticable between rival states, ought not only never to be made, but it ought to be held in abhorrence, we ought to shudder at its approach as the last of evils, and throw it to an immeasurable distance from us. This is indeed closing up the avenues to peace, and shutting the gates of mercy on mankind in a most consummate and scientific manner…[H]e supposes that there is some celestial ichor in our veins which we alone shed for our country, while other nations neither bleed nor suffer from war, nor have a right to profit by peace. This may be very well in poetry, or on the stage, but it will not pass current in diplomacy. Vetus, indeed, strains hard to reconcile inconsistencies, and to found the laws of nations on the sentiments of exclusive patriotism. But we would think that the common rules of peace and war, which necessarily involve the rights, interests, and feelings of different nations, cannot be dictated by the heroic caprices of a few hair-brained egotists, on either side of the question…

The general principle here stated is self-evident, and one would think indisputable. For the very ground of war is a peace whose conditions are thought to hear hard on one of the parties, and yet, according to Vetus, the only way to make peace durable, to prevent the recurrence of an appeal to force, is to impose such hard conditions on an enemy, as it is his interest, and must be his inclination to break by force. An opinion of the disproportion between our general strength, and our actual advantages, seems to be the necessary ground of war, but it is here converted into the permanent source of peace.


First, this security can be good only on one side: secondly, it is not good at all : the only security for peace is not in the actual losses or distresses incurred by states, but in the settled conviction that they cannot better themselves by war.

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