Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author

Author: William Godwin

Essay XVII. Of Ballot.

The subject of the preceding Essay leads by an obvious transition to the examination of a topic, which at present occupies to a considerable extent the attention of those who are anxious for the progress of public improvement, and the placing the liberties of mankind on the securest basis: I mean, the topic of the vote by ballot.

It is admitted that the most beneficial scheme for the government of nations, is a government by representation: that is, that there shall be in every nation, or large collection of men, a paramount legislative assembly, composed of deputies chosen by the people in their respective counties, cities, towns, or departments. In what manner then shall these deputies be elected?

The argument in favour of the election by ballot is obvious.

In nearly all civilised countries there exists more or less an inequality of rank and property: we will confine our attention principally to the latter.

Property necessarily involves influence. Mankind are but too prone to pay a superior deference to those who wear better clothes, live in larger houses, and command superior accommodations to those which fall to the lot of the majority.

One of the main sources of wealth in civilised nations is the possession of land. Those who have a considerable allotment of land in property, for the most part let it out in farms on lease or otherwise to persons of an inferior rank, by whom it is cultivated. In this case a reciprocal relation is created between the landlord and the tenant: and, if the landlord conducts himself towards his tenant agreeably to the principles of honour and liberality, it is impossible that the tenant should not feel disposed to gratify his landlord, so far as shall be compatible with his own notions of moral rectitude, or the paramount interests of the society of which he is a member.

If the proprietor of any extensive allotment of land does not let it out in farms, but retains it under his own direction, he must employ a great number of husbandmen and labourers; and over them he must be expected to exercise the same sort of influence, as under the former statement we supposed him to exercise over his tenants.

The same principle will still operate wherever any one man in society is engaged in the expenditure of a considerable capital. The manufacturer will possess the same influence over his workmen, as the landed proprietor over his tenants or labourers. Even the person who possesses considerable opulence, and has no intention to engage in the pursuits of profit or accumulation, will have an ample retinue, and will be enabled to use the same species of influence over his retainers and trades-people, as the landlord exercises over his tenants and labourers, and the manufacturer over his workmen.

A certain degree of this species of influence in society, is perhaps not to be excepted against. The possessor of opulence in whatever form, may be expected to have received a superior education, and, being placed at a certain distance from the minuter details and the lesser wheels in the machine of society, to have larger and more expansive views as to the interests of the whole. It is good that men in different ranks of society should be brought into intercourse with each other; it will subtract something from the prejudices of both, and enable each to obtain some of the advantages of the other. The division of rank is too much calculated to split society into parties having a certain hostility to each other. In a free state we are all citizens: it is desirable that we should all be friends.

But this species of influence may be carried too far. To a certain extent it is good. Inasmuch as it implies the enlightening one human understanding by the sparks struck out from another, or even the communication of feelings between man and man, this is not to be deprecated. Some degree of courteous compliance and deference of the ignorant to the better informed, is inseparable from the existence of political society as we behold it; such a deference as we may conceive the candid and conscientious layman to pay to the suggestions of his honest and disinterested pastor.

Every thing however that is more than this, is evil. There should be no peremptory mandates, and no threat or apprehension of retaliation and mischief to follow, if the man of inferior station or opulence should finally differ in opinion from his wealthier neighbour. We may admit of a moral influence; but there must be nothing, that should in the smallest degree border on compulsion.

But it is unfortunately in the very nature of weak, erring and fallible mortals, to make an ill use of the powers that are confided to their discretion. The rich man in the wantonness of his authority will not stop at moral influence, but, if he is disappointed of his expectation by what he will call my wilfulness and obstinacy, will speedily find himself impelled to vindicate his prerogative, and to punish my resistance. In every such disappointment he will discern a dangerous precedent, and will apprehend that, if I escape with impunity, the whole of that ascendancy, which he has regarded as one of the valuable privileges contingent to his station, will be undermined.

Opulence has two ways of this grosser sort, by which it may enable its possessor to command the man below him,—punishment and reward. As the holder, for example, of a large landed estate, or the administrator of an ample income, may punish the man who shews himself refractory to his will, so he may also reward the individual who yields to his suggestions. This, in whatever form it presents itself, may be classed under the general head of bribery.

The remedy for all this therefore, real or potential, mischief, is said to lie in the vote by ballot, a contrivance, by means of which every man shall be enabled to give his vote in favour of or against any candidate that shall be nominated, in absolute secrecy, without it being possible for any one to discover on which side the elector decided,—nay, a contrivance, by which the elector is invited to practise mystery and concealment, inasmuch as it would seem an impertinence in him to speak out, when the law is expressly constructed to bid him act and be silent. If he speaks, he is guilty of a sort of libel on his brother-electors, who are hereby implicitly reproached by him for their impenetrableness and cowardice.

We are told that the institution of the ballot is indispensible to the existence of a free state, in a country where the goods of fortune are unequally distributed. In England, as the right of sending members to parliament is apportioned at the time I am writing, the power of electing is bestowed with such glaring inequality, and the number of electors in many cases is so insignificant, as inevitably to give to the noble and the rich the means of appointing almost any representatives they think fit, so that the house of commons may more justly be styled the nominees of the upper house, than the deputies of the nation. And it is further said, Remedy this inequality as much as you please, and reform the state of the representation to whatever degree, still, so long as the votes at elections are required to be given openly, the reform will be unavailing, and the essential part of the mischief will remain. The right of giving our votes in secrecy, is the only remedy that can cut off the ascendancy of the more opulent members of the community over the rest, and give us the substance of liberty, instead of cheating us with the shadow.

On the other side I would beg the reader to consider, that the vote by ballot, in its obvious construction, is not the symbol of liberty, but of slavery. What is it, that presents to every eye the image of liberty, and compels every heart to confess, This is the temple where she resides? An open front, a steady and assured look, an habitual and uninterrupted commerce between the heart and the tongue. The free man communicates with his neighbour, not in corners and concealed places, but in market-places and scenes of public resort; and it is thus that the sacred spark is caught from man to man, till all are inspired with a common flame. Communication and publicity are of the essence of liberty; it is the air they breathe; and without it they die.

If on the contrary I would characterise a despotism, I should say, It implied a certain circumference of soil, through whose divisions and districts every man suspected his neighbour, where every man was haunted with the terror that "walls have ears," and only whispered his discontent, his hopes and his fears, to the trees of the forest and the silent streams. If the dwellers on this soil consulted together, it would be in secret cabals and with closed doors; engaging in the sacred cause of public welfare and happiness, as if it were a thing of guilt, which the conspirator scarcely ventured to confess to his own heart.

A shrewd person of my acquaintance the other day, to whom I unadvisedly proposed a question as to what he thought of some public transaction, instantly replied with symptoms of alarm, "I beg to say that I never disclose my opinions upon matters either of religion or politics to any one." What did this answer imply as to the political government of the country where it was given?

Is it characteristic of a free state or a tyranny?

One of the first and highest duties that falls to the lot of a human creature, is that which he owes to the aggregate of reasonable beings inhabiting what he calls his country. Our duties are then most solemn and elevating, when they are calculated to affect the well being of the greatest number of men; and of consequence what a patriot owes to his native soil is the noblest theatre for his moral faculties. And shall we teach men to discharge this debt in the dark? Surely every man ought to be able to "render a reason of the hope that is in him," and give a modest, but an assured, account of his political conduct. When he approaches the hustings at the period of a public election, this is his altar, where he sacrifices in the face of men to that deity, which is most worth his adoration of all the powers whose single province is our sublunary state.

But the principle of the institution of ballot is to teach men to perform their best actions under the cloke of concealment. When I return from giving my vote in the choice of a legislative representative, I ought, if my mode of proceeding were regulated by the undebauched feelings of our nature, to feel somewhat proud that I had discharged this duty, uninfluenced, uncorrupted, in the sincere frame of a conscientious spirit. But the institution of ballot instigates me carefully to conceal what I have done. If I am questioned respecting it, the proper reply which is as it were put into my mouth is, "You have no right to ask me; and I shall not tell." But, as every man does not recollect the proper reply at the moment it is wanted, and most men feel abashed, when a direct question is put to them to which they know they are not to return a direct answer, many will stammer and feel confused, will perhaps insinuate a falshood, while at the same time their manner to a discerning eye will, in spite of all their precautions, disclose the very truth.

The institution of ballot not only teaches us that our best actions are those which we ought most steadily to disavow, but carries distrust and suspicion into all our most familiar relations. The man I want to deceive, and throw out in the keenness of his hunting, is my landlord. But how shall I most effectually conceal the truth from him? May I be allowed to tell it to my wife or my child? I had better not. It is a known maxim of worldly prudence, that the truth which may be a source of serious injury to me, is safest, when it is shut up in my own bosom. If I once let it out, there is no saying where the communication may stop. "Day unto day uttereth speech; and night unto night sheweth forth knowledge."

And is this the proud attitude of liberty, to which we are so eager to aspire? After all, there will be some ingenuous men in the community, who will not know how for ever to suppress what is dearest to their hearts. But at any rate this institution holds out a prize to him that shall be most secret and untraceable in his proceedings, that shall "shoe his horses with felt," and proceed in all his courses with silence and suspicion.

The first principle of morality to social man is, that we act under the eye of our fellows. The truly virtuous man would do as he ought, though no eye observed him. Persons, it is true, who deport themselves merely as "men-pleasers," for ever considering how the by-standers will pronounce of their conduct, are entitled to small commendation. The good man, it is certain, will see

To do what virtue would, though sun and moon
Were in the flat sea sunk.

But, imperfect creatures as we mortals usually are, these things act and react upon each other. A man of honourable intentions will demean himself justly, from the love of right. But he is confirmed in his just dealing by the approbation of his fellows; and, if he were tempted to step awry, he would be checked by the anticipation of their censure. Such is the nature of our moral education. It is with virtue, as it is with literary fame. If I write well, I can scarcely feel secure that I do so, till I obtain the suffrage of some competent judges, confirming the verdict which I was before tempted to pronounce in my own favour.

This acting as in a theatre, where men and Gods are judges of my conduct, is the true destination of man; and we cannot violate the universal law under which we were born, without having reason to fear the most injurious effects.

And is this mysterious and concealed way of proceeding one of the forms through which we are to pass in the school of liberty? The great end of all liberal institutions is, to make a man fearless, frank as the day, acting from a lively and earnest impulse, which will not be restrained, disdains all half-measures, and prompts us, as it were, to carry our hearts in our hands, for all men to challenge, and all men to comment on. It is true, that the devisers of liberal institutions will have foremost in their thoughts, how men shall be secure in their personal liberty, unrestrained in the execution of what their thoughts prompt them to do, and uncontrolled in the administration of the fruits of their industry. But the moral end of all is, that a man shall be worthy of the name, erect, independent of mind, spontaneous of decision, intrepid, overflowing with all good feelings, and open in the expression of the sentiments they inspire. If man is double in his weightiest purposes, full of ambiguity and concealment, and not daring to give words to the impulses of his soul, what matters it that he is free? We may pronounce of this man, that he is unworthy of the blessing that has fallen to his lot, and will never produce the fruits that should be engendered in the lap of liberty.

There is however, it should seem, a short answer to all this. It is in vain to expatiate to us upon the mischiefs of lying, hypocrisy and concealment, since it is only through them, as the way by which we are to march, that nations can be made free.

This certainly is a fearful judgment awarded upon our species: but is it true?

We are to begin, it seems, with concealing from our landlord, or our opulent neighbour, our political determinations; and so his corrupt influence will be broken, and the humblest individual will be safe in doing that which his honest and unbiased feelings may prompt him to do.

No: this is not the way in which the enemy of the souls of men is to be defeated. We must not begin with the confession of our faint-heartedness and our cowardice. A quiet, sober, unaltered frame of judgment, that insults no one, that has in it nothing violent, brutal and defying, is the frame that becomes us. If I would teach another man, my superior in rank, how he ought to construe and decide upon the conduct I hold, I must begin by making that conduct explicit.

It is not in morals, as it is in war. There stratagem is allowable, and to take the enemy by surprise. "Who enquires of an enemy, whether it is by fraud or heroic enterprise that he has gained the day?" But it is not so that the cause of liberty is to be vindicated in the civil career of life.

The question is of reducing the higher ranks of society to admit the just immunities of their inferiors. I will not allow that they shall be cheated into it. No: no man was ever yet recovered to his senses in a question of morals, but by plain, honest, soul-commanding speech. Truth is omnipotent, if we do not violate its majesty by surrendering its outworks, and giving up that vantage-ground, of which if we deprive it, it ceases to be truth. It finds a responsive chord in every human bosom. Whoever hears its voice, at the same time recognises its power. However corrupt he may be, however steeped in the habits of vice, and hardened in the practices of tyranny, if it be mildly, distinctly, emphatically enunciated, the colour will forsake his cheek, his speech will alter and be broken, and he will feel himself unable to turn it off lightly, as a thing of no impression and validity. In this way the erroneous man, the man nursed in the house of luxury, a stranger to the genuine, unvarnished state of things, stands a fair chance of being corrected.

But, if an opposite, and a truer way of thinking than that to which he is accustomed, is only brought to his observation by the reserve of him who entertains it, and who, while he entertains it, is reluctant to hold communion with his wealthier neighbour, who regards him as his adversary, and hardly admits him to be of the same common nature, there will be no general improvement. Under this discipline the two ranks of society will be perpetually more estranged, view each other with eye askance, and will be as two separate and hostile states, though inhabiting the same territory. Is this the picture we desire to see of genuine liberty, philanthropic, desirous of good to all, and overflowing with all generous emotions?

I hate where vice can bolt her arguments,
And virtue has no tongue to check her pride.

The man who interests himself for his country and its cause, who acts bravely and independently, and knows that he runs some risk in doing so, must have a strange opinion of the sacredness of truth, if the very consciousness of having done nobly does not supply him with courage, and give him that simple, unostentatious firmness, which shall carry immediate conviction to the heart. It is a bitter lesson that the institution of ballot teaches, while it says, "You have done well; therefore be silent; whisper it not to the winds; disclose it not to those who are most nearly allied to you; adopt the same conduct which would suggest itself to you, if you had perpetrated an atrocious crime."

In no long time after the commencement of the war of the allies against France, certain acts were introduced into the English parliament, declaring it penal by word or writing to utter any thing that should tend to bring the government into contempt; and these acts, by the mass of the adversaries of despotic power, were in way of contempt called the Gagging Acts. Little did I and my contemporaries of 1795 imagine, when we protested against these acts in the triumphant reign of William Pitt, that the soi-disant friends of liberty and radical reformers, when their turn of triumph came, would propose their Gagging Acts, recommending to the people to vote agreeably to their consciences, but forbidding them to give publicity to the honourable conduct they had been prevailed on to adopt!

But all this reasoning is founded in an erroneous, and groundlessly degrading, opinion of human nature. The improvement of the general institutions of society, the correction of the gross inequalities of our representation, will operate towards the improvement of all the members of the community. While ninety-nine in an hundred of the inhabitants of England are carried forward in the scale of intellect and virtue, it would be absurd to suppose that the hundredth man will stand still, merely because he is rich. Patriotism is a liberal and a social impulse; its influence is irresistible; it is contagious, and is propagated by the touch; it is infectious, and mixes itself with the air that we breathe.

Men are governed in their conduct in a surprising degree by the opinion of others. It was all very well, when noblemen were each of them satisfied of the equity and irresistible principle of their ascendancy, when the vulgar population felt convinced that passive obedience was entailed on them from their birth, when we were in a manner but just emancipated (illusorily emancipated!) from the state of serfs and villains. But a memorable melioration of the state of man will carry some degree of conviction to the hearts of all. The most corrupt will be made doubtful: many who had not gone so far in ill, will desert the banners of oppression.

We see this already. What a shock was propagated through the island, when, the other day, a large proprietor, turning a considerable cluster of his tenants out of the houses and lands they occupied, because they refused to vote for a representative in parliament implicitly as he bade them, urged in his own justification, "Shall I not do what I will with my own?" This was all sound morals and divinity perhaps at the period of his birth. Nobody disputed it; or, if any one did, he was set down by the oracles of the vicinage as a crackbrained visionary. This man, so confident in his own prerogatives, had slept for the last twenty years, and awoke totally unconscious of what had been going on in almost every corner of Europe in the interval. A few more such examples; and so broad and sweeping an assumption will no more be heard of, and it will remain in the records of history, as a thing for the reality of which we have sufficient evidence, but which common sense repudiates, and which seems to demand from us a certain degree of credulity to induce us to admit that it had ever been.

The manners of society are by no means so unchanged and unalterable as many men suppose. It is here, as in the case of excessive drinking, which I had lately occasion to mention[36]. In rude and barbarous times men of the highest circles piqued themselves upon their power of swallowing excessive potations, and found pleasure in it. It is in this as in so many other vices, we follow implicitly where our elders lead the way. But the rage of drinking is now gone by; and you will with difficulty find a company of persons of respectable appearance, who assemble round a table for the purpose of making beasts of themselves. Formerly it was their glory; now, if any man unhappily retains the weakness, he hides it from his equals, as he would a loathsome disease. The same thing will happen as to parliamentary corruption, and the absolute authority that was exercised by landlords over the consciences of their tenants. He that shall attempt to put into act what is then universally condemned, will be a marked man, and will be generally shunned by his fellows. The eye of the world will be upon him, as the murderer fancies himself followed by the eye of omnipotence; and he will obey the general voice of the community, that he may be at peace with himself.

[36] See above, Essay 9.

Let us not then disgrace a period of memorable improvement, by combining it with an institution that should mark that we, the great body of the people, regard the more opulent members of the community as our foes. Let us hold out to them the right hand of fellowship; and they will meet us. They will be influenced, partly by ingenuous shame for the unworthy conduct which they and their fathers had so long pursued, and partly by sympathy for the genuine joy and expansion of heart that is spreading itself through the land. Scarcely any one can restrain himself from participating in the happiness of the great body of his countrymen; and, if they see that we treat them with generous confidence, and are unwilling to recur to the memory of former grievances, and that a spirit of philanthropy and unlimited good-will is the sentiment of the day, it can scarcely happen but that their conversion will be complete, and the harmony be made entire[37].

[37] The subject of this Essay is resumed in the close of the following.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: William Godwin, "Essay XVII. Of Ballot.," Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author, trans. Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron, 1800-1859 in Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831), Original Sources, accessed May 31, 2023,

MLA: Godwin, William. "Essay XVII. Of Ballot." Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author, translted by Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron, 1800-1859, in Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831, Original Sources. 31 May. 2023.

Harvard: Godwin, W, 'Essay XVII. Of Ballot.' in Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author, trans. . cited in 1831, Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed With Some Particulars Respecting the Author, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 31 May 2023, from