On the Civil Disabilities of the Jews in Britain
[This article is excerpted from The Liberal Tradition from Fox to Keynes, newly back in print from the Mises Institute. It comes from Macauley's speech in the House of Commons on the civil disabilities of the Jews, April 17, 1833.]
When the question was about Catholic emancipation, the cry was, "See how restless, how versatile, how encroaching, how insinuating, is the spirit of the Church of Rome. See how her priests compass earth and sea to make one proselyte, how indefatigably they toil, how attentively they study the weak and strong parts of every character, how skillfully they employ literature, arts, sciences, as engines for the propagation of their faith. You find them in every region and under every disguise, collating manuscripts in the Bodleian, fixing telescopes in the observatory of Peking, teaching the use of the plough and the spinning-wheel to the savages of Paraguay. Will you give power to the members of a church so busy, so aggressive, so insatiable?"
Well, now the question is about people who never try to seduce any stranger to join them, and who do not wish anybody to be of their faith who is not also of their blood. And now you exclaim, "Will you give power to the members of a sect that remains sullenly apart from other sects, that does not invite, nay, that hardly even admits neophytes?"
The truth is that bigotry will never want a pretence. Whatever the sect be that it is proposed to tolerate, the peculiarities of that sect will, for the time, be pronounced by intolerant men to be the most odious and dangerous that can be conceived.
But what if it were true that the Jews are unsocial? What if it were true that they do not regard England as their country? Would not the treatment they have undergone explain and excuse their antipathy to the society in which they live? Has not similar antipathy often been felt by persecuted Christians to the society that persecuted them? While the bloody code of Elizabeth was enforced against the English Roman Catholics, what was the patriotism of Roman Catholics? Oliver Cromwell said that in his time they were Espaniolized. At a later period it might have been said that they were Gallicized.
It was the same with the Calvinists. What more deadly enemies had France in the days of Louis the 14th than the persecuted Huguenots? Why not try what effect would be produced on the Jews by that tolerant policy that has made the English Roman Catholic a good Englishman, and the French Calvinist a good Frenchman?
The honorable member for Oldham tells us that the Jews are naturally a mean race, a sordid race, a money-getting race; that they are averse to all honorable callings; that they neither sow nor reap; that they have neither flocks nor herds; that usury is the only pursuit for which they are fit; that they are destitute of all elevated and amiable sentiments. Such, sir, has in every age been the reasoning of bigots. They never fail to plead in justification of persecution the vices that persecution has engendered.
England has been to the Jews less than half a country; and we revile them because they do not feel for England more than a half patriotism. We treat them as slaves and wonder that they do not regard us as brethren. We drive them to mean occupations and then reproach them for not embracing honorable professions. We long forbade them to possess land; and we complain that they chiefly occupy themselves in trade. We shut them out from all the paths of ambition; and then we despise them for taking refuge in avarice. During many ages we have, in all our dealings with them, abused our immense superiority of force; and then we are disgusted because they have recourse to that cunning that is the natural and universal defense of the weak against the violence of the strong.
But were they always a mere money-changing, money-getting, money-hoarding race? Nobody knows better than my honorable friend, the member for the University of Oxford, that there is nothing in their national character that unfits them for the highest duties of citizens. He knows that, in the infancy of civilization, when our island was as savage as New Guinea, when letters and arts were still unknown to Athens, when scarcely a thatched hut stood on what was afterwards the site of Rome, this contemned people had their fenced cities and cedar palaces, their splendid Temple, their fleets of merchant ships, their schools of sacred learning, their great statesmen and soldiers, their natural philosophers, their historians and their poets.
What nation ever contended more manfully against overwhelming odds for its independence and religion? What nation ever, in its last agonies, gave such signal proofs of what may be accomplished by a brave despair?
And if, in the course of many centuries, the oppressed descendants of warriors and sages have degenerated from the qualities of their fathers, if, while excluded from the blessings of law, and bowed down under the yoke of slavery, they have contracted some of the vices of outlaws and of slaves, shall we consider this as a matter of reproach to them? Shall we not rather consider it as a matter of shame and remorse to ourselves?
Let us do justice to them. Let us open to them the door of the House of Commons. Let us open to them every career in which ability and energy can be displayed. Till we have done this, let us not presume to say that there is no genius among the countrymen of Isaiah, no heroism among the descendants of the Maccabees.
This article is excerpted from a speech given in the House of Commons in the debate on the civil disabilities of the Jews, April 17, 1833. It was published in Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches of Lord Macaulay (1882), pp. 544–50, and republished in The Liberal Tradition from Fox to Keynes, edited by Alan Bullock and Maurice Shock, published first in 1957.