From 1743, on the motion to remove Walpole from power. I’ve spent the last month trying to understand these remarks in their historical context. Yet, even though I’m aware that a real historicist would be content with that, I also feel that they have a certain relevance to certain issues today:

That all Government is instituted for the Happiness of the People, that their Interest ought to be the chief Care of the Legislature, that their Complaints ought patiently to be heard, and their Grievances speedily redressed, are Truths well known, generally acknowledged, and I hope always predominant in the Mind of every Lord in this Assembly. But, that the People cannot err, that the Voice of Fame is to be regarded as an Oracle, and every Murmur of Discontent to be pacified by a change of Measures, I have never before heard, or heard it only to disregard it.

True Tenderness for the People, my Lords, is to consult their Advantage, to protect their Liberty, and to preserve their Virtue; and perhaps Examples may be found sufficient to inform us that all these Effects are often to be produced by Means not generally agreeable to the public.

It is possible, my Lords, for a very small Part of the People to form just Ideas of the Motives of Transactions and the Tendency of Laws. All Negotiations with foreign Powers are necessarily complicated with many different Interests, and varied by innumerable Circumstances, influenced by sudden Exigencies, and defeated by unavoidable Accidents. Laws have respect to remote Consequences, and involve a Multitude of Relations which it requires long Study to discover. And how difficult it is to judge of political Conduct, or legislative Proceedings, may be easily discovered by observing how often the most skilful Statesmen are mistaken, and how frequently the Laws require to be amended.

If then, my Lords, the People judge for themselves on these Subjects, they must necessarily determine without Knowledge of the Questions, and their Decisions are then of small Authority. If they receive implicitely the Dictates of others, and blindly adopt the Opinions of those who have gained their Favour and Esteem, their Applauses and Complaints are with respect to themselves empty Sounds, which they utter as the Organs of their Leaders. Nor are the Desires of the People gratified, when their Petitions are granted; nor their Grievances overlook’d, when their Murmurs are neglected.

As it is no Reproach to the People, that they cannot be the proper Judges of the Conduct of the Government, so neither are they to be censured when they complain of Injuries not real, and tremble at the Apprehension of Severities unintended. Unjust Complaints, my Lords, and unreasonable Apprehensions are to be imputed to those who court their Regard only to deceive them, and exalt themselves to Reputation by rescuing them from Grievances that were never felt, and averting Dangers that were never near.

He only who makes the Happiness of the People his Endeavour, loves them with a true Affection and a rational Tenderness, and he certainly consults their Happiness who contributes to still all groundless Clamours, and appease all useless Apprehensions, who employs his Care not only to improve their Quiet and their Liberty, but to secure them from the Fear of losing it, who not only promotes the Means of Happiness, but enables them to enjoy it.

Thus it appears, my Lords, that it is possible to be a Friend at the same time to the People and the Administration, and that no Man can more deserve their Confidence and Applause than he that dissipates their unreasonable Terrours, and contributes to reconcile them to a good Government.

The passage is interesting in its historical context, sure, but doesn’t it also seem relevant to some of the best parts of the healthcare debate going on right now in America? Take, for example, the following clip about Al Franken and some other smart Minnesotans:

I will admit to having had a few misgivings about Al Franken, mainly because I knew him as a comedian and a pundit and wondered how that would translate into public service. Entertainers do not always make for the best politicians, as Americans have had ample opportunity to learn.

But what I see, especially in the opening remarks of this video but also throughout, is the exemplification of the Johnsonian principles in the passage above. Franken is determined to approach the issue using his own judgment, not Obama’s and not his constituents’s. He has a greater command of the issues than the people he’s talking to–which, ideally, I think you hope your legislators have–but he also shares many of their common sense concerns about the money to pay for it, the quality of the care, and so on. Perhaps most importantly, Franken and the people remain calm and engaged with one another about the various points they raise.

I don’t get the sense that Franken persuades the people he’s talking to–they still look uncertain, maybe even antagonistic, at the end of the video–but just the mere fact of having a conversation seems like a genuine triumph, especially given the divisiveness of this issue.

Nicely played, Senator Franken and people of Minnesota. But maybe you should shout at one another a little more, maybe cuss one another a bit–you’re making the rest of America look so bad, your good behavior might be construed as unpatriotic. And we don’t want the terrorists to win, do we?

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