The English Constitution Quotes

"The Religion Of Gold"

Context: Bagehot's The English Constitution has a somewhat misleading title to most Americans. To us a constitution is a written document which outlines a form of government, delegating certain responsibilities to that government and imposing certain limitations upon it; at the same time, it usually guarantees a number of rights and privileges to those who are subject to it. Thus, to Americans, a book about any constitution either traces its origins and evolution or interprets it. The British, however, have no such historic document. By their constitution they mean the actual social and political order, in its entirety, of their nation; this term includes all laws, customs, traditions, and precedents through which their system of government operates. Thus Bagehot's book is a consideration of those forces and institutions which regulate English social and political life. In it he considers the various branches of government; the system of checks and balances which operates within the structure is discussed, and the forms of cabinet government are compared. As Bagehot observes, it is difficult to attempt any descriptive analysis of "a living Constitution:" the thing being studied is constantly changing, and the governments it is compared with are changing simultaneously. The structure analyzed in this volume applies to 1865–1866; when a second edition was published in 1872, Bagehot found it necessary to write a lengthy preface in order to bring his material up to date, and in it he implies that he is startled to find that so many changes have occurred in the interim. The volume begins with a study of the Cabinet and of the concept and function of monarchy; it then takes up the House of Lords:

The use of the House of Lords–or, rather, of the Lords, in its dignified capacity–is very great. It does not attract so much reverence as the Queen, but it attracts very much. The office of an order of nobility is to impose on the common people–not necessarily to impose on them what is untrue, yet less what is hurtful; but still to impose on their quiescent imaginations what would not otherwise be there. The fancy of the mass of men is incredibly weak; it can see nothing without a visible symbol, and there is much that it can scarcely make out with a symbol. Nobility is the symbol of mind. It has the marks from which the mass of men always used to infer mind, and often still infer it. A common clever man who goes into a country place will get no reverence; but the "old squire" will get reverence. Even after he is insolvent, when everyone knows that his ruin is but a question of time, he will get five times as much respect from the common peasantry as the newly-made rich man who sits beside him. The common peasantry will listen to his nonsense more submissively than to the new man's sense. An old lord will get infinite respect. His very existence is so far useful that it awakens the sensation of obedience to a sort of mind in the coarse, dull, contracted multitude, who could neither appreciate or perceive any other.
The order of nobility is of great use, too, not only in what it creates, but in what it prevents. It prevents the rule of wealth–the religion of gold. . . . In reverencing wealth we reverence not a man, but an appendix to a man; in reverencing inherited nobility, we reverence the probable possession of a great faculty–the faculty of bringing out what is in one. . . .