In Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn, a novel set in the 1860s about a somewhat hapless member of Parliament, one of the crucial political issues of the day is “the ballot,” i.e., whether votes should be public or secret. Though Finn is a liberal, he thinks votes should be public, at least at the start of the novel (which I haven’t finished yet); he believes transparency deters voters from choosing a narrow self-interest. Electoral reform, however, is on the march. Even though MPs like Finn aren’t yet ready for a secret ballot, many citizens are, and at the end of volume one (it’s a three-decker), a large group of protesters is scheduled to meet outside the Houses of Parliament, in hopes of influenceing a debate inside about adding the secret ballot to a larger measure for electoral reform. Finn’s landlord, Mr. Bunce, supports the secret ballot and plans to attend the protest. Finn tries to dissuade him, not because he wants the protest to be smaller but because he doesn’t think a respectable man like Bunce ought to protest and he’s worried that Bunce could be arrested. The two have an argument, remarkably civil and considerate given that they hold opposing views, and the way they talk about the worth of street protest, or lack thereof, and how to balance freedom of expression with concern for law and order, makes the passage seem awfully relevant to America today:
“What good do you expect to do, Mr. Bunce?” Phineas said, with perhaps some little tone of authority in his voice.
“To carry my point,” said Bunce.
“And what is your point?”
“My present point is the ballot, as a part of the Government measure.”
“And you expect to carry that by going out into the streets with all the roughs of London, and putting yourself in direct opposition to the authority of the magistrates? Do you really believe that the ballot will become the law of the land any sooner because you incur this danger and inconvenience?”
“Look here, Mr. Finn; I don’t believe the sea will become any fuller because the Piddle runs into it out of the Dorsetshire fields; but I do believe that the waters from all the countries is what makes the ocean. I shall help; and it’s my duty to help.”
“It’s your duty, as a respectable citizen, with a wife and family, to stay at home.”
“If everybody with a wife and family was to say so, there’d be none but roughs, and then where should we be? What would the Government people say to us then? If every man with a wife and family was to show hisself in the streets to-night, we should have the ballot before Parliament breaks up, and if none of ’em don’t do it, we shall never have the ballot. Ain’t that so?” Phineas, who intended to be honest, was not prepared to dispute the assertion on the spur of the moment. “If that’s so,” said Bunce, triumphantly, “a man’s duty’s clear enough. He ought to go, though he’d two wives and families.” And he went.