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Republic of Florence, knew a great deal of the practical working of democratic institutions in time of national emergency, wrote in his Discorsi':
In all matters of difficulty wherein courage is needed for resolving, vacillation will always be met with whenever those who have to deliberate and decide are weak. Not less mischievous than doubtful resolves are those which are late and tardy, especially when they have to be made on behalf of a friend. From their lateness they help none, but hurt ourselves. Tardy resolves are due sometimes to want of spirit or want of strength, or to the perversity of those who have to determine. Sometimes they are due to the secret desire of politicians to overthrow their opponents or to carry out some selfish purpose of their own. Hence these men prevent the forming of a decision, and only thwart and hinder.
Vacillation, lateness, and tardiness are in Machiavelli's opinion the characteristics of divided counsels which are habitually found in Governments by discussion—in democracies. His statement that vacillation and delay are particularly harmful if a friendly nation requires support is strikingly illustrated by the fatal delay of democratic Britain and France in coming to Serbia's aid.
Frequently during the War the British Government has been reproached in innumerable newspaper articles that it is always too late both in its diplomatic and in its military activities, that statesmen are discussing when they should be acting, that they lack initiative, that they are always surprised by the enemy, that they are acting only after the event, that nothing is done in time. These reproaches irresistibly remind one of similar taunts levelled at the Athenians by that great statesman and patriot Demosthenes, who, like the late Lord Roberts, tried in vain to arouse the misguided and pleasure-loving citizens to a sense of the danger which threatened them from an ambitious neighbour King and his powerful national army. In his 'First Philippic,' that great orator said :
Why, Athenians, are the festivals in honour of Athenae and of Dionysus always celebrated at the appointed timefestivals which cost more treasure than is usually expended upon a whole fleet and attended by larger numbers and greater magnificence than any other event in the worldwhile all your expeditions have been too late, as that to Methone, that to Pegasae, and that to Potidaea ? I will tell you the reason. Everything relating to your amusements is carefully studied and ordered beforehand. So everyone of you knows long before the event who is to conduct the various entertainments, what he is to receive, where he is to go, and what he has to do. Nothing is left uncertain or undetermined. But in affairs of war and in warlike preparations there is no order, no certainty, no regulation. Only when events alarm us we appoint our Trierarchs. Having done so, we dispute with them, and lastly we consider the question of supplies for war. It is shameful, Athenians, that we deceive ourselves by allowing all disagreeable news to be suppressed, that we listen only to the pleasing speeches of our leaders, and that we thus delude ourselves ; that by putting off everything unpleasant, we never move until it is too late ; that we refuse to understand that those who would wage war successfully should not follow, but direct, events.
In the Fourth Philippic' Demosthenes stated :
You, Athenians, have never made the necessary disposition in your affairs, or armed yourselves, in time, but have ever been led by events. Then, when it proves too late to act, you lay down your arms. If another incident alarms you, your preparations are once more resumed in general tumult and confusion. But this is not the way to obtain success. ... When Philip was preparing, you, instead of doing the like and making counter-preparations, remained listless, and, if anyone spoke a word of warning, shouted him down. When you receive news that any place is lost or besieged, then you listen and prepare. But the time to have heard and consulted was when you declined to listen, and the time to act and employ your preparation is now when you are hearing me. Such being your habits, you are the only people who adopt this singular course. Other nations deliberate before action. You deliberate after action.
While King Philip was preparing everything for his attack upon Athens, the leaders of the Athenian democracy were fighting one another for votes and influence, for place and power. Demosthenes sadly stated in his ‘ First Philippic':
If we sit at home listening to the mutual recriminations of our orators we cannot expect the slightest success in any direction. ... They may promise and assert and accuse this person or that, but to such proceedings we owe the ruin of our affairs.
In his Oration for the Liberty of the Rhodians' we read:
You, Athenians, must fight a double battle. Like others, you have your open enemies, but you have enemies still more dangerous and alarming. You have to overcome in the first place the opposition of those of your own citizens who, in this assembly, are systematically engaged against the interests of their own country. And, as they are ever strenuous in their opposition to all useful measures, it is no wonder that many of our designs are frustrated.
Athens owed her downfall to her party-political divisions, to the fact that she had many heads, but no head, to the fact that the Athenians, engaged in an unending struggle for power, were taught to place party above country and self above the State. Trusting to their democratic oratorpoliticians, who desired to be popular, who desired to please, the misguided people delayed preparation and action against their enemies until it was too late.
If we study the history of Athens at its source, it becomes clear that that great republic rose to eminence during the time when it was a democracy in name but not in fact; that it was a great, efficient, and wisely governed Power as long as it was ruled by an aristocracy and was guided by a single man of great ability, such as Aristides, Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles; that it began to decline when it became a true democracy, when the controlling power in the State fell into the hands of the people, when ambitious or needy politicians and adventurers, contending for power, divided the nation, corrupted and destroyed the patriotism of the people, and taught them to exploit the State and to consider it as an institution which existed mainly to administer to their wants and their vices, to their love of ease and of self. The policy of Athens was bound to be improvident, hasty, reckless, and foolish when the affairs of State were no longer directed by the ability of the experienced few or by the wisdom of a single eminent man, but by the momentary emotions and the shortsightedness of the crowd.
In Athens public affairs were discussed and decided by the people, assembled in their thousands in the market-place. It may therefore be objected that the Athenian democracy cannot in fairness be compared with modern democracies which have evolved highly developed representative institutions. It may be said that in Great Britain not the people nor the elected representatives, but a small and select body, the Cabinet, enjoying great latitude for action, discusses policy and decides and directs in the greatest secrecy. Let us then study the cause of the decline and fall of another great commercial, maritime, and colonising republic, of Venice. The case of Venice should be particularly interesting because the Constitution of that State curiously resembles that of this country as established in the eighteenth
entury. In fact, it may be said that the British Constitution, as we know it now, was modelled upon that of Venice.
Venice, like Great Britain, did not possess a written and fixed Constitution. The Venetians recognised that government by a crowd is bound to be a failure. The controlling power of the State, which at first had been held by the Doge and then by representative assemblies, passed into the hands of the Council of Ten, which originally had been merely a judicial committee. The Senate of Venice may fairly be compared to the British House of Commons, and the Council of Ten to the British Cabinet. The Council of Ten acted in conjunction with the Senate, and its power was practically unlimited. Like the British Cabinet, it carried on its work in absolute secrecy. It was not dependent upon public opinion. The Doge, the Duke, who had been allpowerful at the time when Venice rose from insignificance to greatness, had been deprived of all authority. He was a mere figure-head. He was, as we are told,“ rex in purpura, senator in curia, in urbe captivus, extra urbem privatus.? The Doge was indeed a captive in a golden cage. He was not allowed to open the despatches which were addressed to him, as the head of the State, by foreign sovereigns. His palace, and even his person, were liable to be searched at any moment. In fact, he was a prisoner of the Ten. To make his revolt unlikely, only very old and feeble men were elected Doge. He was held responsible during his lifetime with his liberty and his head, and after his death with his estate. Venice was an aristocratic republic. The people were powerless. Owing to the absence of anything resembling popular control or public opinion, the authority of the Ten, acting in conjunction with the Senate, was of the greatest.
Although much power was thus concentrated into the hands of a small secret Council, Venice declined and decayed. Government by councils and committees proved fatal to her. In 1677 was published a remarkable book, 'Histoire du Gouvernement de Venise.' It was written by Amelot de la Houssaye, a diplomat and a keen student of political affairs, who during several years was attached to the French Embassy in Venice, and who had made a special study of that wonderful State. In a chapter ‘On the Principal Causes of the Decline of Venice' we read :
The Republic of Venice has had the same fate as that of Sparta. Both were flourishing as long as they were small.