Front Page Titles (by Subject) IX: GENERAL POLITICS - Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions
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IX: GENERAL POLITICS - John Bright, Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions 
Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions, introduction by Joseph Sturge (London: J.M. Dent and Co., 1907).
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Edinburgh, November 5, 1868.
On this day Mr. Bright was elected an Honorary Member of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce. Mr. George Harrison, Chairman of the Chamber, in congratulating Mr. Bright on being thus elected, stated that the Chamber had elected only three Honorary Members—Sir John Sinclair, the distinguished Scottish economist, in the last, and Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Bright in the present century. In the evening Mr. Bright addressed an audience of working men, and on a vote of thanks being offered him for his pains in acceding to their invitation during a contested election, made a brief speech which concluded his addresses on this occasion. The speech printed here is that which was addressed to the working men.]
I RISE for the purpose, first of all, of expressing how greatly I feel indebted to the gentlemen of the Edinburgh branch of the Reform League and of the trades of Edinburgh for the kindness with which they have prepared and presented to me the addresses which have been read. I do not accept those addresses as in any way binding those who have presented them to an approval of all the course of my political life. I accept them merely as tokens of the belief of those from whom they come that whether we have agreed, or whether on some occasions we have differed, they at least believe that I have acted honourably and conscientiously, as far as I know, for the best interests of the country.
It is about ten years since I last spoke at a public meeting in Edinburgh. Some who are now present were doubtless present on that occasion, and they will feel with me that in the ten years that has passed much has happened, and much has been changed. At that time the Government presided over by Lord Derby was in office, and was engaged in attempting to prepare a Reform Bill for the coming Session of Parliament. That Reform Bill was framed upon the principle that the Ministry would not consent to what the Government of that day called “any degradation of the franchise.” They would have no lowering of the barrier at which people were to be admitted to the vote. The Bill failed, as it deserved to fail, and the Government were expelled from office, as they deserved to be expelled. Coming down to eight years after this—to 1866—the party of whom I have spoken, being the Government of ten years ago, objected to a Reform Bill introduced by Lord John Russell and Mr. Gladstone, and resisted it on the ground that they were not willing to consent to such a degradation of the franchise as should admit householders in towns who were occupiers at the value of 7l. at least to the vote. They succeeded in defeating the Bill, and the Government resigned, and the same gentlemen immediately came into office, and though they had been sensible that any degradation of the franchise would be almost the ruin of the country, that its degradation to a 7l. rental was so perilous an experiment that they dared not consent to it, in the year 1867 they undertook to “degrade the franchise” to the level of the householder.
The words “degradation of the franchise,” as you know, are not mine. I am using the language of those gentlemen in order to express what I believe will be found, instead of a degradation of the franchise, to be a great elevation of the people. We have got, then, and we need not exactly discuss how it has been effected, what may be called a popular and democratic—in fact, a Republican representation, so far as the boroughs of the United Kingdom are concerned. The principle of popular representation in Parliament, as it is adopted in the colonies, and in the States of America, has been conceded. Several boroughs have been disfranchised because they were small; towns have been erected into new boroughs because the towns were large; counties have been divided because they were populous, and the general principle has been admitted that we should make some approximation to the distribution of seats according to the population of the constituencies. Besides this, everybody can see that another question is coming forward for settlement—one which possibly may not excite so much interest in Scotland as in England, Wales, and Ireland. It is, however, one which is closely related to the representation of the people. This is the great question of the ballot.
The fact is—and I do not say so with any expression of scorn or with any feeling of triumph—the aristocracy of England which so lately governed the country has abdicated, and its most boastful leader, Lord Derby, its chief, in its name, and for it, has capitulated to the people. One hundred and eighty years ago there was a revolution in England. The revolution of 1688 had this effect. It stripped the monarch of absolute power, and, pretending to confer it upon the nation, conferred it mainly upon the nobility. The Bill of 1832, combined with the Bill of last year, gave us another revolution. Power has not been taken from the Crown and given to the nobility, but it has been taken from the nobility and has been given henceforth and for ever to the people. The form of aristocratic power yet remains. In every country the possessors of great wealth are likely to have power. I am not complaining of this; but I am stating a fact, which must be plain to all. But although the influence of wealth is great, the spirit of the country has changed, and the centre of power has been moved. We are, in fact,—do not let us attempt to conceal it from ourselves,—standing on the threshold of a new career. Being there, we need no longer have recourse to the arguments which we have often heard from platforms in times past, such indeed as I sometimes have been ready to use. There is no longer a contest between us and the House of Lords; we need no longer bring charges against a selfish oligarchy; we no longer dread the power of the territorial magnates; we no longer feel ourselves domineered over by a class; we feel that denunciation and invective now would be out of place; the power which hitherto has ruled over us is shifted. We now have to appeal to you, to address our arguments to you, to couple facts—if we are capable of doing so—with wisdom, and, if we may, to counsel you, so that you who are now part of the government of the country may show in the acts which you do the wisdom which you have learned. The fate of this great nation is in the nation’s hands: come weal, come woe, the responsibility of the future must rest with the mass of the people, for they are now admitted, at least within the boroughs, to a large share of representation, and thereby of political power.
But all is not done. There are some matters which have to be adjusted; for to confer the franchise is only to give every man a key by which, if he is wise, he may unlock the treasures which are open to a well-governed people. This very Reform Bill, so extensive and so remarkable as it is, has still many deficiencies. I do not intend to go into details to show what must be done in order to bring the county franchise into greater harmony with the borough franchise. These are details that must come up before long for discussion before the people, and before Parliament; but there is one point to which I will refer, which I have indeed already mentioned, and this is the shelter of the ballot. I see in the papers a speech by a gentleman for whom all who know him must have the highest and deepest feeling of respect. I refer to one of the candidates for the city of Westminster, Mr. John Stuart Mill. No man is more fair in argument than Mr. Mill, no man is more willing to admit the force of anything that an opponent offers for his consideration; but it is not necessary that we should believe that Mr. Mill can know every question better than anybody else—and, in saying that, I say no more than he would be most willing to allow—but in a speech which Mr. Mill made within the last two days to some of his constituents, he says that he opposes the ballot. He thinks—I do not quote his words—that public duties should be performed publicly; that by and by there will be morality and power enough to put an end not only to corruption, but to compulsion; and the compares the free and open exercise of the ballot to the duty of a judge in a court of justice which is open to the public eye. It appears to me that the comparison is not a good one. The judge in open court has no compulsion brought upon him; he is independent; the Crown, which appointed him to his office, cannot remove him; he is not expected to deliver a judgment in accordance with any feeling that he may have, but one which is wholly in accordance with well-known and recognized rules of law. If instead of stopping at the Bench, Mr. Mill had gone into the jury-room, he would have found that the jury, which is just as important in this country in a trial as the judge, does sit apart from the public eye, and more than that, that it is considered a gross violation of confidence if any juryman should convey to the public a knowledge of what has occurred in the jury-room. I am not able to accept these glowing pictures of the immediately improved morality of the people. If it be wise not to bring in the ballot because men without it will become strong enough not to need it, it might be equally wise to dispense with the judge and jury and the police; for (who knows?) at sometime—it may be remote—men may become strong enough in virtue, honest enough in their hearts, not to violate the written or the moral law, and judges and juries and courts of justice may no longer be required.
I look at the condition of things in this country and in Ireland, where, as you know, a county contest is little less than civil war; in Wales, where all the people, with scarcely any exception, being Nonconformists in their religion and Liberal in their politics, have hardly any opportunity of expressing their own opinions, and hardly any influence in their county representation. I look again at all the great constituencies of the kingdom which have been created under this Bill, and I am forced to conclude, as the new machinery of electing a Parliament comes into working, that it will be proved to every man, who is in favour of public order at our political contests, that the ballot is absolutely and indispensably necessary to secure order as well as liberty.
There is another question which is now before the public which has received much consideration, and, I believe, a wise verdict from the people of Scotland. That is the Irish policy of the Liberal party in the late Parliament. We are about to try a great experiment, one of the most notable experiments ever attempted by any Government, or by any Parliament—we are about to see whether we can win over the affections and sympathies of a discontented and almost hostile people by one grand, generous, and wise attempt to do them full and complete justice. It is unnecessary in Scotland to point out how much an alien Church is necessarily a root of bitterness; your history teaches you all this in a more marked manner, perhaps, than it has been taught to any other country. I feel that I need only refer to the appeals which have been made to you by the Liberal candidates throughout Scotland to gain your thorough and hearty consent to the great attempt to establish perfect religious equality in Ireland.
But there will be another question by no means without its difficulties when this question of the Church of Ireland is settled, and that is with regard to the ownership and tenure of land in that country. You know nothing of this matter in Scotland from your own experience. Although you have the misfortune to have the land of your country in very few hands, still the men who own it have been not a little alive—as Scotchmen are generally supposed to be—to their own interests. They have conducted their business as landowners upon principles altogether unknown in Ireland. They have granted leases of reasonable duration, and I believe have given good encouragement to their tenants. They have expended their own capital on the erection of buildings, and in the making of certain permanent and necessary improvements. The Scotch farmer entering upon his farm could carry on his business with some hope of success. But you are in a very different position from the Irish. In Ireland the land really is not in the possession of what I may call native proprietors, or natives of the country, to any large extent. It seems to me to be an essential thing for the peace of any country that its soil should at least be in possession of its own people. I believe that in Ireland it will be necessary to adopt some plan—and I believe there is a plan which can be adopted without injustice or wrong to any man—by which gradually the land of Ireland may be, to a considerable extent, transferred from foreign, or alien, or absentee Protestant proprietors, to the hands of the Catholic resident population of the country. I anticipate that until something of this kind is put into process of operation, we shall not find such tranquillity and content in Ireland as we would wish to see. But in speaking of the Irish land question, I may say one word about the land question in the United Kingdom. Perhaps many of you are not aware that from year to year, from ten years to ten years, the owners of land in the United Kingdom are becoming a smaller and smaller number of persons; that the laws which we have in this country, having been based and supported by the territorial powers, are laws whose express object it is to maintain great estates in the hands of great families, and to make the land not of Ireland only, but of Great Britain, a monopoly in the possession of a few. And the purpose of all this is that these great families by the possession of vast estates may possess and wield great political power, and remain, as they have been until now, the great governing party and power within this realm. But if you look seriously at facts, you will see that certain forces are constantly operating which tend to the accumulation of land; and that certain other forces tend as certainly to its dispersion. Those which tend to its accumulation will easily suggest themselves. Some men think it wise, and certainly agreeable, to put their property into land. Some people feel like Dr. Johnson, who advised a friend of his to take a walk of two miles before breakfast, and said, if possible, it should be upon your own land. Others like investments in land because they like to dabble in agriculture; others because the investment in land in this country gives a certain social influence which repays them for the moderate rate of interest which they receive. On the other hand, you will see that there are also influences which assist the dispersion of landed property. For instance, a man may wish to have an investment in English land, which pays him three per cent., put into American land, which will pay him seven per cent.; or he finds it expedient to get rid of a portion of his estate in order to procure capital for his son; or he may have been unfortunate in some monetary speculation, and therefore may find it necessary to sell land; or that which happens to all men happens to him—his life comes to an end, and then the property may possibly need to be sold. Thus you will see that Nature has provided certain forces which tend to the accumulation of estates in land, and certain other forces which tend to their dispersion; and I maintain that the true policy of the Government and of the law—the just policy of the law—is to leave all to the forces of Nature, whether they induce the disposition to accumulate or bring about the necessity of dispersion, to their unrestrained operation. Thus when laws are made by which men who wish to buy property will be able to buy it, some in large and some in small quantities, the monopoly which exists in this country will be brought to an end.
I do not propose that there should be any law by which estates should forcibly be cut up and divided among families. I would leave the owner, the man in possession of the estate, perfect freedom to decide whether he will leave the property to one, or divide it among the whole of his children. The law of division maintained in France and in many countries of Europe is believed by most people in those countries to be a good law; but it appears to me to be contrary to the principles of political economy, and I prefer the operation of the law as it exists in the United States of America, which rejects the law of France and rejects also our law. But I conceive that before long it will be the duty of the people of England, of the electors of England, and of Parliament to remove from the Statute-book what is called the law of primogeniture, to allow land where it is left by a person who makes no will to be justly and equally divided by the law as property other than land is now divided, and that the present practice of entails and settlements should be limited to persons who are living when the deeds are made. I believe that it is not a wise thing to sacrifice the public interests to family pride or to the notion that you must build up great families who are to have great resources, only that they may exercise a paramount authority in a free country.
There is another question which has been discussed a good deal of late, which at least twice a year to some people, and every day to most people, is of some interest. This is the question of Government expenditure. The people of the United Kingdom have carried the burden of heavy chains so long, that they have become used to them, and almost seem to think that the chains are part of their natural limbs. We are paying now, this very year, taxes amounting to 70,000,000l. sterling. I wish I could show you what 70,000,000 or even what 1,000,000 means; but I have never found a man who could comprehend the meaning of a million. Out of these 70,000,000l., 26,000,000l. go to pay the interest on the debt contracted by wars which have been waged by this country between the time of William III and the time of the Russian War. These wars have seldom been undertaken for any purpose whatever in which the whole people of this country had a real interest. Your fathers having waged the wars, spilled the blood and spent the treasure; it comes on us, their children, and on our children and their children, to pay the interest for an enormous debt. But we are not content with this burden. We have learnt so little by the past, that we are paying this year, I think, rather more than an equal sum, rather more than 26,000,000l. from the fear that there may be another war, or that we may be induced again to meddle in some great European contest. We are maintaining an army and a navy at a cost far greater than at any previous period in time past, although we have confessedly—I quote the words of Lord Stanley, the Foreign Minister—a sufficient guarantee that we have altogether abandoned the ancient theory of the balance of power, and that we do not intend henceforth to use the sword in any question in which the honour and interest of England are not distinctly involved.
This year, I think, the army cost about 15,000,000l., and the navy over 11,000,000l. Let me tell you how many there are of every kind of soldier and half-soldier in the country. If I am not mistaken, there were voted 140,000 men for the army, for the navy 60,000, making 200,000 regular and permanent troops, which we have been told are absolutely necessary, so necessary that the Government that preceded this present Government were most negligent of the defences of the country in maintaining less. Of the militia there are 128,000 men, of the Volunteers 162,000. In Ireland there is a police force, equal in training and armament to any troops, of, I believe, rather more than 12,000 men. Then there is, as you know, a considerable force of police in all our great towns, and in nearly all the counties. Take them altogether, they make a very formidable sum. These persons are withdrawn from industry to what is supposed to be necessary defence, and you need not wonder that the sum which we pay is as large as that which I have described, to say nothing of the loss to industry. Let me further illustrate what I am saying by calling your attention to Ireland. There have been at times, and certainly not long ago, 30,000 soldiers in Ireland. I do not know how many there are at this moment, but if they are not there they are somewhere else, and I dare say somewhere where they are not wanted. But we have in Ireland, besides the 12,000 armed police which I have mentioned, an army which is paid for out of the taxes of the United Kingdom. The system of the Government of Ireland, of which the Tory party is enamoured, is one which requires this great military force in order to keep Ireland contented, or if it fails in that, to keep it from the constant exhibition of rebellious tendencies. If I were one of the Conservative party—I use the term as it is used in the Tory newspapers—if I were one of that party I really should be ashamed to talk of Ireland: I should feel that if there be a spot on the earth’s surface where my principles have had full play, it is in that unhappy country. The territorial magnates have had all the power there, an Established Church has been supported by all the authority of Great Britain; the magistrates in the country, in great majority, have been of the Protestant persuasion; everything has been upheld there which the most resolute Tory could desire to see. But with what result? That policy has been followed, as it must be everywhere and inexorably, by widespread discontent, and a resolution on the part of the people that they will shake themselves free from such a Government if at any time the power of Great Britain is not strong enough to control them.
And now let us look at the facts in a reasonable manner. What does the 26,000,000l. spent on the army and navy mean? It means something equal to the debt of 800,000,000l. sterling which our forefathers spent in folly and wrong, and the interest on which your taxes pay. It means that there is virtually another sum of 800,000,000l., the interest of which you are paying in taxes in order to keep up a great army and a great navy. And when? not only in a time of profound peace, but when no country in the world menaces or distrusts us; when there is not a cloud in the sky; when, if ever there was a time at which the United Kingdom may be said to be in tranquillity and peace, the time at which I am speaking is that time. If you look back over the history of England from the time of the Revolution—from the time of William III to the end of the Russian War—you will find that almost every war in which we have been engaged was based on the utter folly and absurdity that this nation is called upon to maintain the balance of power in Europe. I hope that we have abandoned that policy and given up that delusion; that we have got free from that aberration, and are at last in our right mind. May we not, then, calculate that if we keep out of the former hallucination, if we retain that sound mind, if we for the next 50 years, or 100 years, resolve to maintain our present policy of not meddling in the affairs of Europe, that we shall be at least as free from wars in 100 years to come as we might have been in the 100 years that are passed. If that be so, if there be any hope of it,—and I believe there is,—I ask why we should go on paying 26,000,000l. sterling a year for the cost of an army and a navy?
I quoted a passage yesterday from perhaps the foremost name in English political history—from John Milton—I may now quote another. He describes these charges for war as draining the veins of the body to supply ulcers; and so from your veins, from the sweat of your brows, from the skill of your brains, and the industry of your hands, from that which you have worked for to furnish your houses, to clothe your families, to supply their wants—from all these this 26,000,000l. is gathered up, not once in 100 years, but every year, to support the army and navy, to maintain and keep up a policy which we have utterly abandoned. If you read the papers, which tell us nearly everything—I find they sometimes tell us things that do not happen—you will find they say something about the West Indian and North American fleet; something about the Pacific squadron; and something about the naval force of Her Majesty in the China seas; something which has happened to ships of war on the coast of India, or at the Cape. Then you hear of Lord Clarence Paget, as here, or there, in some part of the Mediterranean, with a prodigious fleet. You hear, further, that there is always a great Channel fleet which is necessary for our home protection. But there is no necessity whatever for these fleets on our coast, or for traversing every ocean as they do now. There is no other country that finds it needful to have great fleets and squadrons everywhere. I do not know whether it is a dream, or a vision, or the foresight of a future reality that sometimes passes across my mind—I like to dwell upon it—but I frequently think the time may come when the maritime nations of Europe—this renowned country, of which we are citizens, France, Prussia, Russia, resuscitated Spain, Italy, and the United States of America—may see that those vast fleets are of no use; that they are merely menaces offered from one country to another; that they are grand inventions by which the blood is withdrawn from the veins of the people to feed their ulcers; and that they may come to this wise conclusion,—they will combine at their joint expense, and under some joint management, to supply the sea with a sufficient sailing and armed police, which may be necessary to keep the peace on all parts of the watery surface of the globe, and that those great instruments of war and oppression shall no longer be upheld. This, of course, by many will be thought to be a dream or a vision, not the foresight of what they call a statesman. Still, I have faith that it will not be for ever that we shall read of what Wilberforce called the noxious race of heroes and conquerors; that what Christianity points to will one day be achieved, and that the nations throughout the world will live in peace with each other. How much can we spare of that 26,000,000l.? I think one-half of it was considered enough thirty years ago when the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel were in power. Heavy taxation always is unequal, for when the burden is heavy the powerful classes are always endeavouring to shift it from their own shoulders on to those of somebody that is weaker. It is impossible to say how great would be the gain to the commerce and manufactures, to the shopkeeping and distributing interests, to artisans and labourers throughout the country if one-half of these 26,000,000l. could be saved. There is not a man or a woman in England that would not reap some advantage from such a change. If this wide extension of the suffrage does not bring the people to consider these questions, and cause them to urge in Parliament greater wisdom and greater economy, I shall be greatly dissatisfied with its results.
In the address which was given to me a reference was made to another question, not less important than any of those I have mentioned. That is, the question of education. I presume that in Scotland, where you have had more education than we have had in England, you are in favour of having more still; for education is one of those things of which the more extensively it is spread among the people, the more a people demand. In England we are superior to other nations in some things: we have great personal freedom; we have a press that can write almost anything it likes; we have a platform on which men may speak freely; we have great success in manufactures; we have immense superiority over almost all countries; but it is singular that in the education of the people, of the working classes, of those who live by waves, we are much behind very many of the civilized and Christian nations of the world. We have any number of churches and colleges, but we have a great scarcity of schools. I sometimes compare the state of things in New England with the state of things in Old England. New England began to be colonized about 250 years ago: the very first colonists who landed on its shores established at once a system of education. From that day to this that system has not only constantly flourished, but it has been constantly extended and gathered strength, and now the population of New England is descended from no less than eight generations of skilled and intelligent men and women. In this country, as we all know, unhappily, there are at least some millions whose forefathers for eight generations have been entirely deprived of all education whatever. You may imagine—you cannot imagine — the difference between two people, one which has been educated for 250 years, and another which has been almost entirely shut out from education. Only last night, when I came to Edinburgh, I sat by a lady who has not long ago returned from America. She was a lady of your country. She spoke with delight of what she had seen there with regard to education, and with pain and sorrow at the neglect of it which is shown by the population of the United Kingdom. She said that nobody would think of speaking of any class, as we speak, as being partially, or large portions of them as entirely, uneducated. There is a possibility—and we shall find it out, our children will see it, I hope—that the millions of this country who have not been educated—for you can see the fact in the countenances and lives of many—will hereafter have, if not a large, at least a reasonable and necessary culture. I frequently used an argument in favour of a wider suffrage to the following effect:—I said that this great neglect was the fruit of the government of the country by a small section or class; that if we were to transfer the power from the small section and extend it over the nation, the instincts and sympathies of the nation would at once demand that a wide and thorough system of, at least, elementary education should be speedily extended to every part of the country. I have dwelt on three great topics. I had no notion that the mere passage of a Suffrage Bill would content everybody; for, after all, there is not much difference in holding up your hands at the hustings and going in to have your name put down on the poll-book unless something is to follow. That something, I hope, we shall all consider carefully and wisely, and that in all our future proceedings we shall bear in mind that upon every one of us, as electors, there is a great and solemn responsibility. The three great questions before us are these:—The monopoly of the land, which I believe to be the cause of great and serious evil. It drives vast numbers of the rural population into the towns, where sometimes they are not wanted. It subjects the rural population over wide districts of territory to the rule of one man, as you know; and it keeps the rural population back in the condition—I speak of the labourers—which they were in for a hundred years ago or more. Rents have risen, the incomes of the landed proprietors doubled, trebled, and quadrupled—aye, in some cases, increased tenfold. What the labourers were at one time they remain, not altogether, but very much the same as they were. Let us protest against the monopoly of the land. I hope that we shall have the united voice of all the free constituencies in the country before long demanding of Parliament that there shall be such a change made as brings the truths of political economy and the law of justice within reach of all.
Next, there is an enormous expenditure, and in some things onerous inequality of taxation. I had this morning the opportunity of meeting the members of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, and I took occasion to tell them how great a credit it was to them that so far back as the year 1820 they had presented an admirable petition to Parliament in favour of the principle of free trade, and I suggested to them that they might find it to be their duty to endeavour to get what I call a free breakfast-table—to get rid of the heavy duties upon tea, coffee, and sugar. The expenditure of the country might easily be reduced so much as to allow a reduction or repeal of these duties. The equalization of certain other duties—I refer to the legacy and succession duties—might go a considerable way towards the means for extinguishing these duties. You may rely upon it, that if the people say that these taxes are unnecessary and unjust, and if the people protest against them, and resolve to get rid of them, you will not find the slightest difficulty in finding a Chancellor of the Exchequer who will do the work.
The last of the three questions is the existence of ignorance, of almost hopeless ignorance, among the poorest classes of the people. It is not an extraordinary thing that notwithstanding our great industry, our wonderful machinery, our world-wide commerce, and the great wealth of the country, there should be found so large a mass of pauperism in the kingdom. I read the other day a speech made by a member of the House of Commons, and a member of the present Government, or who was until the last Session. The Secretary of the Poor Law Board expressed his apprehension that the pauperism of the country was increasing so fast that it would be nearly as bad as it was some thirty years ago. I think there must be something very rotten if such a result occurs. Since I have taken a part in public affairs, the fact of the vast weight of the poverty and ignorance that exists at the bottom of the social scale has been a burden on my mind, and is so now. I have always hoped that the policy which I have advocated, and has been accepted in principle, will tend gradually but greatly to relieve the pauperism and the suffering which we still see among The working classes of society. I have no notion of a country being called prosperous and happy, or of being in a satisfactory state, when such a state of things exists. You may have an historical monarchy decked out in the dazzling splendour of Royalty; you may have an ancient nobility settled in grand mansions and on great estates; you may have an ecclesiastical hierarchy, hiding with its worldly pomp that religion whose first virtue is humility; but, notwithstanding all this, the whole fabric may be rotten and doomed ultimately to fall, if the great mass of the people on whom it is supported is poor, and suffering, and degraded.
Is there no remedy for this state of things? If Government were just, if taxes were moderate and equitably imposed, if land were free, if schools were as prominent institutions in our landscapes and in our great towns as prisons and workhouses are, I suspect that we should find the people gradually gaining more self-respect; that they would have much more hope of improvement for themselves and their families, that they would rise above, in thousands of cases, all temptations to intemperance, and that they would become generally—I say almost universally—more virtuous and more like what the subjects of a free State ought to be. The solemn question as to the future condition of a considerable portion of the labouring classes in this country cannot be neglected. It must be known and remedied. It is the work upon which the new electoral body and the new Parliament will have to enter. It is a long way from Belgrave Square to Bethnal Green. It is not pleasant to contrast the palatial mansions of the rich and the dismal hovels of the poor, the profuse and costly luxuries of the wealthy with the squalid and hopeless misery of some millions of those who are below them. But I ask you, as I ask myself a thousand times, is it not possible that this mass of poverty and suffering may be reached and be raised, or taught to raise itself? What is there that man cannot do if he tries? The other day he descended to the mysterious depths of the ocean, and with an iron hand sought, and found, and grasped, and brought up to the surface the lost cable, and with it made two worlds into one. I ask, are his conquests confined to the realms of science? Is it not possible that another hand, not of iron, but of Christian justice and kindness, may be let down to moral depths even deeper than the cable fathoms, to raise up from thence the sons and daughters of misery and the multitude who are ready to perish? This is the great problem which is now before us. It is one which is not for statesmen only, not for preachers of the Gospel only—it is one which every man in the nation should attempt to solve. The nation is now in power, and if wisdom abide with power, the generation to follow may behold the glorious day of what we, in our time, with our best endeavours, can only hope to see the earliest dawn.