Book Review: Democracy and Liberty by William E. H. Lecky

Introduction by William Murchison (Liberty Classics, 7440 North Shadeland, Indianapolis, Indiana 46250), 1981
Vol. 1, 479 pages; Vol. II, 501 pages $18.00/set, cloth; $6.00/set, paperback

William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838-1903), Irish historian, essayist, and member of Parliament, issued Democracy and Liberty in 1896. Lecky was convinced that the statist radicalism which asserted that only the majesty of the collective state could ensure Well-being against the vagaries of the capitalist structure would eventually result in an enforced servitude of the citizenry.

Democracy and Liberty is an eclectic history which deals with the tendencies of the political world in many different countries. English representative government, French democracy, American democracy,-the functions of legislative bodies, labor questions, woman questions, the growth of socialism, are among the topics which Lecky discusses with a depth of knowledge and methods of reasoning which are helpful in evaluating contemporary issues.

Lecky was particularly concerned with the effect of universal suffrage bestowed on the basis of posited abstract “rights” rather than on characteristics which defined the solid, trustworthy, educated, working citizenry. A tenet of the older liberalism which asserted the rights of the individual against the state was that primary political powers should be with the owners of realty. The doctrine that men to whom the land belonged, at least in minute or yeoman amounts, were the men who ought to govern was held by Dr. Franklin and by a large segment of the American colonists. Lecky felt a major danger of representative government was its potential degeneration into a system of veiled confiscation of one class voting the taxes which another class would be compelled to pay.’

Lecky felt that the privilege of suffrage rightly varied according to the special characteristics and circumstances of nations. That there is no certain and specific “natural right” of suffrage was said to be illustrated in the American experience. There were no uniform rules of suffrage in the colonies. Even subsequent to the adoption of the Constitution, the various States differed considerably in their qualifications for voting, although property qualifications prevailed in most states.

Lecky felt that the organic emergence of the right of suffrage in Western Civilization was aptly set forth by Chief Justice Story. In his Commentaries on the Constitution, which Lecky felt was one of the most valuable works ever penned on the science of politics, Story said that voting, irrespective of whatever foundation it may have in natural law, had always been treated as a civil right in the practice of nations, regulated by each society according to its own circumstances and interests.

Lecky endeavored to follow the tendencies that were altering the contours of the political world right up to the publication of his Democracy and Liberty. All the eloquence and learning that Lecky mustered, Murchison writes in the introduction, was shouted into the teeth of the gale. Nevertheless, Lecky was a man worth listening to in 1896. And, his conversation, rooted in tradition and experience rather than frenzies of the moment, is still valuable.

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