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By Walter Bagehot

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Sample text

No one can approach to an understanding of the English institutions, or of others which being the growth of many centuries exercise a wide sway over mixed populations, unless he divide them into two classes. In such constitutions there are two parts (not indeed separable with microscopic accuracy, for the genius of great affairs abhors nicety of division): first, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population – the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and next, the efficient parts – those by which it, in fact, works and rules.

It succeeds in deciding because the debates and the discussions give it the facts and the arguments. But under a presidential government a nation has, except at the electing moment, no influence; it has not the ballot-box before it; its virtue is gone, and it must wait till its instant of despotism again returns. It is not incited to form an opinion like a nation under a cabinet government; nor is it instructed like such a nation. There are doubtless debates in the legislature, but they are prologues without a play.

The Cabinet which have this catastrophe at the end of them – or may so have it – are sure to be listened to and sure to sink deep into the national mind. Travellers even in the Northern States of America, the greatest and best of presidential countries, have noticed that the nation was ‘not specially addicted to politics’; that they have not a public opinion finished and chastened as that of the English has been finished and chastened. A great many hasty writers have charged this defect on the ‘Yankee race’, on the Anglo-American character; but English people, if they had no motive to attend to politics, certainly would not attend to politics.

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