18th Century Henry Fielding on 21st Century Dictatorship


In Fielding’s 1749 masterpiece, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, on Tom’s journey to London he and his servant, Partridge, encounter a Gypsy community. Partridge is lured into trouble by a Gypsy woman, then is rescued by the Gypsy king, who instantly resolves the problem.

So that the reader does not assume he is praising autocratic government, Fielding intrudes on the action and makes the following political comment:[1]

“Jones afterwards proceeded very gravely to sing forth the Happiness of those Subjects who live under such a Magistrate.

Indeed their Happiness appears to have been so compleat, that we are aware lest some Advocate for  arbitrary Power should hereafter quote the Case of those People, as an Instance of the great Advantages which attend that government above all others.

And here we will make a Concession, which would not perhaps have been expected from us, That no limited Form of Government is capable of rising to the same Degree of Perfection, or of producing the same Benefits to Society with this. Mankind have never been so happy, as when the greatest Part of the then known World was under the Dominion of a single Master; and this State of their Felicity continued during the Reigns of five successive Princes.[2] This was the true Æra of the Golden Age, and the only Golden Age which ever had any Existence, unless in the warm Imaginations of the Poets, from the Expulsion from Eden down to this Day.

In reality, I know but of one solid Objection to absolute Monarchy. The only Defect in which excellent Constitution seems to be the Difficulty of finding any Man adequate to the Office of an absolute Monarch: For this indispensably requires three Qualities very difficult, as it appears from History, to be found in princely Natures: First, a sufficient Quantity of Moderation in the Prince, to be contented with all the Power which is possible for him to have. 2dly, Enough of Wisdom to know his own Happiness. And, 3dly, Goodness sufficient to support the Happiness of others, when not only compatible with, but instrumental to his own.

Now if an absolute Monarch with all these great and rare Qualifications should be allowed capable of conferring the greatest Good on Society, it must be surely granted, on the contrary, that absolute Power vested in the Hands of one who is deficient in them all, is likely to be attended with no less a Degree of Evil.[3]

In short our own Religion furnishes us with adequate Ideas of the Blessing, as well as Curse which may attend absolute Power. The Pictures of Heaven and of Hell will place a very lively Image of both before our Eyes: For though the Prince of the latter can have no Power, but what he originally derives from the omnipotent Sovereign in the former; yet it plainly appears from Scripture, that absolute Power in his infernal Dominions is granted to their Diabolical Ruler. This is indeed the only absolute Power which can by Scripture be derived from Heaven. If therefore the several Tyrannies upon Earth can prove any Title to a divine Authority, it must be derived from this original Grant to the Prince of Darkness, and these subordinate Deputations must consequently come immediately from him whose Stamp they so expresly bear.

To conclude, as the Examples of all Ages shew us that Mankind in general desire Power only to do Harm, and when they obtain it, use it for no other Purpose; it is not consonant with even the least Degree of Prudence to hazard an Alteration, where our Hopes are poorly kept in Countenance by only two or three Exceptions out of a thousand Instances to alarm our Fears. In this Case it will be much wiser to submit to a few Inconveniencies arising from the dispassionate Deafness of Laws, than to remedy them by applying to the passionate open Ears of a Tyrant.

Nor can the Example of the Gypsies, tho’ possibly they may have long been happy under this Form of Government, be here urged; since we must remember the very material Respect in which they differ from all other People, and to which perhaps this their Happiness is entirely owing, namely, that they have no false Honours among them; and that they look on Shame as the most grievous Punishment in the World.”

1 Volume II, Book XII, chapter xii.
2 “Nerva, Trajan, Adrian, and the two Antonini. The reigns of these enlightened emperors extended from A.D. 96 to 180.”
3 Text italics are mine.











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