Home > Uncategorized > William Hazlitt: Ultima ratio regum: liberals and conservatives united by leaden bullets and steel bayonets

William Hazlitt: Ultima ratio regum: liberals and conservatives united by leaden bullets and steel bayonets

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

British writers on peace and war

William Hazlitt: Selections on war

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William Hazlitt
From the preface to Political Essays, with Sketches of Public Characters (1819)

Talk of mobs as we will, the only true mob is that incorrigible mass of knaves and fools in every country, who never think at all, and who never feel for any one but themselves. I call any assembly of people a mob (be it the House of Lords or House of Commons) where each person’s opinion on any question is governed by what others say of it, and by what he can get by it. The only instance of successful resistance in the House of Commons to Ministers for many years was in the case of the Income-Tax; which touched their own pockets nearly.

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A modern Whig is but the fag-end of a Tory…But the Opposition have pressed so long against the Ministry without effect, that being the softer substance and made of more yielding materials, they have been moulded into their image and superscription, spelt backwards, or they differ as concave and convex, or they go together like substantive and adjective, or like man and wife, they two have become one flesh…To interfere between them is as dangerous as to interfere in a matrimonial squabble. To overturn the one is to trip up the heels of the other….But the leaden bullets and steel bayonets, the ultima ratio regum by which these questions are practically decided, do their business in another-guess manner; they do not stand on the same ceremony.

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From The Bourbons and Bonaparte (1813)

It is the spirit of treating the French people as of a different species from ourselves – as a monster or a non-entity – of disposing of their government at the will of every paragraph-monger – of arming our hatred against them by ridiculous menaces and incessant reproaches – of supposing that their power was either so tremendous as to threaten the existence of all nations, or so contemptible that we could crush it by a word, – it is this uniform system, practised by the incendiaries of the press, of inflaming our prejudices and irritating our passions, that has so often made us rush upon disaster, and submit to every extremity rather than forego the rancorous and headstrong desire of revenge.

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Instead of a proud repose on our own strength and courage, these writers only feel secure in the destruction of an adversary. The natural intoxication of success is heightened into a sort of delirium by the recollection of the panic into which they had been thrown. The Times‘ editor thinks that nothing can be so easy as for an army “to run with the stream of popular feeling” from one end of Europe to the other. Strange that these persons, like desperate adventurers, are incorrigible to experience. They are always setting out on the same forlorn hope. The tide of fortune, while it sets in strong against us, they prove to be the most variable of all things; but it no sooner changes in our favour, than it straight

“Flows on to the Propontic,
And knows no ebb.”

To encourage themselves in the extravagance of their voluntary delusions, they are as prodigal of titles of honour as the college of heralds, and erect a standard of military fame, with all the authority, but not with the impartiality of history. Lord Wellington is “the great commander,” and “the unconquered general,” while “the little captain,” and “the hero” or “the deserter of Smorgonne,” are the only qualifications of Bonaparte.

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We can easily believe…”it was ever the fault of our English nation” to wish to interfere with what did not concern them, for the very reason that they could interfere with comparative impunity. What is sport to them is death to others. The writer also draws a parallel as if it were a feasible case, between Holland, Spain, and Germany throwing off a foreign yoke, and the French throwing off their own; in other words, submitting to a foreign one. We beg pardon of these acute discriminators. We know they have an answer. We leave them in possession of the nice distinction – between a foreign yoke, and a yoke imposed by foreigners!

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