O’Brian On Democracy — “Pernicious Nonsense” Etc.

O’Brian On Democracy — “Pernicious Nonsense” Etc.

If some literature student (in a non-Western ideology-soaked department) is looking for thesis material, Patrick O’Brian on the evils of democracy is it.

Here, only one snippet, from The Yellow Admiral, the 18th volume in the Aubrey-Maturin series (the best novel in the English language). The scene is between the two protagonists, who are discussing a successful attempt by Aubrey, as Lord of the Manor, to stop his beloved commons from being enclosed. The time is immediately before Napoleon’s first defeat.

(Only the last ellipsis is mine. I use the pound sign to demarcate the text, because a block quote is too long.)


‘Jack,’ said Stephen, ‘I have been contemplating on your words about the nature of the majority, your strangely violent, radical, and even — forgive me — democratic words, which, with their treasonable implication of ‘one man, one vote’, might be interpreted as an attack on the sacred rights of property; and I should like to know how you reconcile them with your support of a Tory ministry in the House.’

‘Oh, as for that,’ said Jack, ‘I have no difficulty at all. It is entirely a matter of scale and circumstance. Everyone knows that on a large scale democracy is pernicious nonsense — a country or even a county cannot be run by a self-seeking parcel of tub-thumping politicians working on popular emotion, rousing the mob. Even at Brooks’s, which is a hotbed of democracy, the place is in fact run by the managers and those that don’t like it may either do the other thing or join Boodle’s; while as for a man-of-war, it is either an autocracy or it is nothing, nothing at all — mere nonsense. You saw what happened to the poor French navy at the beginning of the Revolutionary War…’

‘Dear Jack, I do not suppose literal democracy in a ship of the line nor even in a little small row-boat. I know too much of the sea,’ added Stephen, not without complacency.

‘…while at the other end of the scale, although ‘one man, one vote’ certainly smells of brimstone and the gallows, everyone has always accepted it in a jury trying a man for his life. An inclosure belongs to this scale: it too decides men’s lives. I had not realized how thoroughly it does so until I came back from sea and found that Griffiths and some of his friends had persuaded my father to join with them in inclosing Woolcombe Common…

‘Stephen, I do assure you. I was brought up rough when I was a little chap, after my mother’s death, sometimes at the village school, sometimes running wild; and I knew these men intimately as boys, and now to see them at the mercy of landlords, farmers, and God help us parish officers for poor relief, hurts me so that I can scarcely bring myself to go there again. And I am determined the same thing shall not happen to Simmon’s Lea, if ever I can prevent it. The old ways had disadvantages, of course, but here — and I speak only of what I know — it was a human life, and the people knew its ways and customs through and through.


At the beginning of Napoleon’s adventures, his ships were run, not exactly on a communist line, but close to it. Authority along traditional—make that Traditional—lines was quickly restored.

Everybody does not know, though they used to, that “large scale democracy is pernicious nonsense — a country or even a county cannot be run by a self-seeking parcel of tub-thumping politicians working on popular emotion, rousing the mob.”

Nothing but praise of large-scale democracy is had—by those on the winning side. Losers charge the winners with “populism”. As if large-scale democracy is anything but populism. Have we not already seen in the recent Democrat (!) debates a contest who could give away the most “free” stuff?

That Trump, or even the guy with mysterious origins before him, has not declared himself—openly declared himself—Ceasar is the only puzzle to be solved. Well, perhaps we’re not there yet. But we will be, eventually. Large-scale democracy guarantees it. Even if it weren’t for all the other things (immigration, the Religion of Man, et cetera), all mobs eventually go mad. All voters, that is.

The distinction of interest is when democracy does make sense. Jury trials are meant to be, in theory, comprised of equals. When something approaching real equal holds, democracy can work. But equality only holds at the very small, in very constrained circumstances.

More of this is in my upcoming book! Well I hope it is upcoming. Two rejections thus far. We’ll see!

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  1. Juries work well, but only when comprised of peers of the defendant. One or two blacks on an otherwise white jury will fail to convict a black man, simply because he is black. An all black jury, on the other hand, will often convict him.

  2. Sheri

    McChuck—I disagree. Juries fail because there are stupid people who just don’t care on them. Jurors are driven by emotion, not facts. This is especially true with personal injury suits. I personally would like to see professional jurors with training in logic and science who can evaluate the facts, not the grandstanding lawyers. Right now, court is just grandstanding by two people with law degrees, not a pursuit of justice.

  3. Plantagenet

    Briggs- I think you mean Caesar not Cesar.
    In a system like the British Common Law used in most English speaking jurisdictions the ability of the accused to opt for trail by judge or jury presents an interesting dilemma. As I usually tell students in Intro to Crim;
    If you know you are guilty go with a jury. Juries, God love em, are filled with individuals who can be swayed by emotion, politics, a mosquito flying by, you name it. Most of all 98% of them don’t really understand the law, hence some truly “interesting” results.
    If, on the other hand, you know you are innocent, opt for a judge. He/she is bound by rules and procedures. They tend to be, legally, conservative. They know the law …usually. They are less inclined to be swayed by rhetoric. I would not trust my innocence to a jury 99 times out of 100.

  4. @Plantagenet: Huh. Massad Ayoob said that, in general, he’d rather have the innocent face a jury than a bench trial, citing a jury as a creature with a dozen BS detectors, two hundred years’ life experience, and twenty four each of eyes and ears.

  5. henry higgins

    I agree with Justice Thomas : IF there is a constitutional change needed then make that change. Don’t make judges into legislators !!

    ““The more fundamental problem is Batson itself. The ‘entire line of cases following Batson’ is ‘a misguided effort to remedy a general societal wrong by using the Constitution to regulate the traditionally discretionary exercise of peremptory challenges,’” Thomas wrote, adding that “black criminal defendants will rue the day that this Court ventured down this road that inexorably will lead to the elimination of peremptory strikes.””

  6. Briggs


    Another typo snuck in by my enemies.

  7. Plantagenet

    Arkan- well he and I will have to agree to disagree. Though I am less familiar with the American justice system than those in the British Commonwealth I am uneasy with judges who are elected rather than appointed, and I also believe in the completely random selection of juries. Judges who are appointed, despite misgivings, seldom go rogue in the UK and Canada because they know that a higher court will heap scorn on them, and they may be liable for very strict sanctions, even career stalling or ending reprimands. There was a judge in Britain named Denning whom law students love cause he was seen as a loose canon. He was always being reversed. Anyway point is judges BS detectors are informed by legal training and knowledge.

  8. C-Marie

    Winston S. Churchill’s book, The People’s Rights, argues for the people to a living wage,
    education for the young, for the Lords to not have the final say on the budget that the House of Commons has just worked out and presented to the House of Lords. His point being that maybe 300 people ought not to have such power over the rest of the housands and thosands of people, just because of the inherited property the Lords own Does thatmownership makemthem do any better with their power thanmthe common people might do.. He also pointed out that many of the Lords did not attend to government issues as they ought to do.

    Churchill also held that Lords ought not to hold their property from sale until the property they mean to sell rises unfairly in price until towns and regular people could not afford it.

    He wrote of the children of the Lords, who until they were eighteen or so, were schooled in the best of schools and were trained up, whereas the children of the common people ran wild without much training, and he wanted trades schools for them. He wanted the elderly, those 70 and above, to have care as needed. And more.

    Regarding enclosure of the commons in the story, The Yellow Admiral, from Wikipedia: Enclosure gest (sometimes inclosure) was the legal process in England of consolidating (enclosing) small landholdings into larger farms since the 13th century. Once enclosed, use of the land became restricted to the owner, and it ceased to be common land for communal use.

    And, “A Tory is a person who holds a political philosophy known as Toryism, based on a British version of traditionalism and conservatism, which upholds the supremacy of social order as it has evolved in the English culture …”

    From this article: “The scene is between the two protagonists, who are discussing a successful attempt by Aubrey, as Lord of the Manor, to stop his beloved commons from being enclosed.”

    So it appears that Aubrey was not for restricting the use of land, of hs
    and at least, and also, ought the Lords have the right to bring that concerning the land of his commons; and yet he is for keeping the old ways as he supports a Tory.

    So, the argument goes on with when is one vote to one person right, or the best, and the discussion proceeds to democracy and one vote each, but the realization that not all will do well with their vote is acknowledged. And then to judges and the gallows.

    It is plain to see, that unless people live for our Creator, the Living God, obeying His commands, that these difficulties will continue.

    God bless, C-Marie

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