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Earl of Shaftesbury, Two Seasonable Discourses - Joyce Lee Malcom, The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, vol. 2 
The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, 2 vols, ed. Joyce Lee Malcolm (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 2.
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Earl of Shaftesbury, Two Seasonable Discourses
[Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, 1621-1683]
Concerning this present
Printed in the Year, 1675.
This tract has been attributed to the Earl of Shaftesbury, then leader of the opposition and a staunch critic of both Court policy and the long, Cavalier Parliament.
Shaftesbury was intent upon getting the Cavalier Parliament, sitting since 1661, finally dissolved. Many of its members were in the pay of the Court and clearly it was no longer representative of the country. Shaftesbury was not disinterested in the matter. He had been dismissed from the Privy Council in May 1674 and promptly became a leader of the opposition in Parliament. He hoped fresh elections would give his side a majority. When Parliament reconvened in October 1675, he made dissolution a priority. Shaftesbury had a penchant for summoning up serious constitutional issues to achieve political ends.In this instance legitimate and probing questions were raised about the ability of a parliament sitting for a great many years to carry out its constitutional function. On 20 November 1675 Lord Mohun, one of Shaftesbury’s opposition group, moved in the Lords for a dissolution. After a heated debate the motion was defeated by two votes. Two days later Parliament was prorogued although for the unprecedented period of fifteen months. In 1677 when it reconvened, Shaftesbury would claim this long prorogation made it unlawful and attempted once again to force a dissolution. His assertion of illegality landed him in the Tower of London, where he was held for a year.
The tract reprinted here appeared in two editions. Again the tactic was used of publishing and publicizing parliamentary debate.
The Debate or Arguments for Dissolving This Present Parliament, and the Calling Frequent and New Parliaments.
As they were delivered in the House of Lords, November the 20th. 1675.
That it is according to the Constitution of the Government, the ancient Laws and Statutes of this Realm, that there should be frequent and new Parliaments, and the practice of all Ages, till this last, hath been accordingly; Parliaments, both long before and after the Conquest, were held three times a year, viz. Easter, Whitsontide, and Christmas, during the space of Eight Days for each time, and so continued with some variations, as to the times of Calling, and length of Holding; but always very short untill the Reign of Edward 3 in the fourth year of whose Reign there was a Law made, That Parliaments should be holden every year once, or more often, and how this Law is to be understood, whether of a New Parliament every Year, or calling the Old, is most manifest, by the practice, not only of all the Ages before, but of some Hundred of Years since that Law: Prorogations or Long Adjournments, being a thing never heard of untill latter Years.
And it is most unreasonable, that any particular number of Men should for many Years ingross so great a Trust of the People, as to be their Representatives in the House of Commons; And that all other the Gentry; and the Members of Corporations of the same Degree and Quality with them, should be so long excluded. Neither is it agreeable with the nature of Representatives to be continued for so long a time; and those that choose them, not to be allowed frequent opportunity of changing the hands; in which they are obliged to put so great a trust. The mutual correspondence and Interests of those who choose and are chosen; admitting of great variations in length of time. How many in this present House of Commons are there, whose business and acquaintance has not given them the occasion of the correspondence of one Letter, (for these many Years) with any Person of those places for whom they serve? How many may there be in future Parliaments, if continued as long as This, that may be Protestants when they are chosen, and yet may come in so many Years justly to be suspected to have changed their Religion? Nay, How many in this present Parliament are there, who were by the People when they were of the same adequate Interest with them, and in length of time, by the Favour and Goodness of the Prince, and their own great Merits, are become Officers in the Court, and about the Revenue? This is not spoken to reflect on them, for many of them have behaved themselves very worthy of those places; but yet themselves cannot say, that they are equally as free to act for those that choose them, as they were before: Nor are they of the same Interest, as when they were chosen; for now they gain, and have the advantage by the People’s payments. And if they should say, They are the same Men they were, We may call their Fellow Members that have sat with them to Witness, whether the Proverb be not true, that Honores mutant mores,1 whether they have the same Opinion, and the same Freedom they had before. Nay, may it not be said without offence, that even in this House of Commons, there are not a few, who, when they were chosen, were lookt upon as Men of Estates; and are either since grown or discovered to be of that indigent condition, that they are much fitter to receive the publick maintenance, than give the publick money; and it may be charitably supposed, that those Gentlemen are so modest, as to be willing to lay down, if they could, the publick Trust. But ’tis most certain, that those places they serve for, would not be willing to continue them in it. There is no question, but ’tis the King’s undisputed Prerogative to call and end Parliaments when he please, and no man, nor number of men can limit him a time; but the greatest Prince cannot avoid the being limited by the nature of things; Representatives of the People are necessary to the making Laws, and there is a time when it is morally demonstrable, that men cease to be Representatives, there being Circumstances and Proprieties that distinguish everything as well as Person in the World. So that to conclude this head, We Owe the Prince the observance of his time and place both for calling and duration of Parliaments, and the Prince owes us, not only the frequencies of Parliaments, but that our Representations should be preserved to us in them.
And further, if you consider the constitution of our Government, where the King as Head (from whom all the vital and animal Spirits are diffused through the Body) has the care of all, whose Interest is to seek the welfare of the whole; all being his, the strength of the Nation being his strength, the riches his riches, the glory and honour, his glory and honour, and so on the contrary. But least passion mistake flattery, or the ill designs of those about the Prince, should make him grow cross to his Real, and follow a destructive imaginary Interest: There is an Estate of Hereditary Nobility, who are by Birth-right the Councellors of the Kingdom, and whose Interest and Business it is, to keep the Ballance of the Government steady, that the Favourites and great Officers, exceed not their bounds, and oppress the People, that Justice be duely Adminstered, and that all parts of the Government be preserved entire. Yet even These may grow insolent (a Disease Greatness is liable to) or may by Offices, Dependencies, hopes of Preferment, and other accidents, become, as to the major part of them, rather the obsequious flatterers of the Court, than true supporters of the publick and English Interest, and therefore the Excellence of our Government, affords us another Estate of Men, which are the Representatives of the Free-holders, Cities, principal Burroughs, and Corporations of England, who by the Old Law, were to be new chosen once a year, if not oftener, so that they perfectly gave the sence of those that chose them, and were the same thing as if those were present that chose, they so newly coming from them, and so quickly returning to give an account of their Fidelity, under the penalty of shame, and no further Trust.
Thus you have in our English Government, the House of Commons affording the Sence, the Mind, the Information, the Complaints, the Grievances, and the desires of all those People for whom they serve, throughout the whole Nation. The People are thus secure, no Laws can be made, nor Money given, but what themselves, though at home, fully consent and agree to. The Second Estate in this Government, is the Lords, who are the Councill, the Wisdom, and Judgment of the Nation, to which their Birth, Education, and constant imployment, being the same in every Parliament, prepares and fits them. The last, and supream of all, is the King, One who gives Life and Vigour to the proceedings of the other Two; The Will and Desires of the People, though approved by the Wisdom and Judgment of the Lords, are Abortive, unless he bids them be an Act.
Human reason can hardly contrive a more excellent Government. But if you will alter this Government, in any of the Three Parts of it, the disorders and Inconveniencies incident to the nature of such alteration, must necessarily follow; As for instance, the long continuance of any such as are entrusted for others, especially of such as have so great a power over the Purse of the Nation, must necessarily produce Caballs, and Parties, and the carrying on of private Interests and Court-Factions, rather than the publick good, or the true Interest either of the King or Kingdom. How vastly is the priviledge of a Parliament man encreased since the middle of the Reign of Henry 8.? Before, it was several times agreed by all the Judges, and observed as the Law, That a Member and his Servants, were exempted only from Arrests and Outlawries, but might be impleaded, sued, and Attached by his Land and Goods; yet now they must not be sued in any Case, nor dispossessed of anything during the time of Priviledge; nay, these two last Sessions the Priviledge must extend to exempt them even from the Judicature of Parliament itself: As also before the same King’s Reign the House of Commons never thought of Judicature, as being in the nature of their Constitution uncapable of it. But since they are not only become Judges of their own Priviledges, condemning and imprisoning their fellow-Subjects at pleasure, and without an Oath, and also Judges of all Elections, by which very often they, and not the places, chuse their fellow-members: But now ’tis come to that, that the House of Commons pass sentence on the Lords’ proceedings, make new crimes, and add Preinstruments to them by their own Authority. If you will ask the reason of this change, ’tis plain that Parliaments began in Henry 8’s time to be longer than they ought, That Prince knowing that long Parliaments were fitted to make great Changes, they have been too frequent since, but never of that length as this. Besides all this, the long continuance of Representatives renders them liable to be corrupted and won off from the Publique-Interest; it gives them time to settle their Cabals and Interest at Court, and takes away the great Security the Nation has; that if it be possible to happen that the Spiritual Lords because of their great dependence on the Crown, the Popish Lords being under the pressure of so severe Laws, together with the Court Lords and great Officers should in any future Age make up a greater number of the House of Lords, and should pass things very prejudicial to the Publick, yet all should prove ineffectual, and the Nation remain safe in an House of Commons lately chosen that have not had time to learn new Sentiments, or to put off their old Principles at a good Market. How great has been the modesty of this present House of Commons, that having had the Purse of the Nation thus long in their hands, as being those that first begun the Grants of Subsidies and Aids to the King, and so by consequence have all the Addresses made to them, whenever the wants of the Crown (which in this active Age are very often) require it, that they have not made use of it to the prejudice of the Publick, or to their own advantage. It was a very high Temptation, and might easily have rendered them in their own Opinion more than Lords, and they are rather to be commended that they insisted on no higher Terms with the Lords House, than wondered at for what they did. Considering the matter, ground and the circumstances wherein they stood, and yet they were certainly mistaken, and not a little forgot themselves, when they would not allow the Lords House a power of lessening the Summs in any Bill of Subsidie or Aid that they had once set;2 which was not only directly contrary to the Interest of the People that chose them, but against the ancient and express Rule and Custom of Parliament, whereby it is clear if the Commons grant five Subsidies, and the Lords agree but to four, that Bill of Subsidie need not be sent down to the Commons for their consent to such an alteration. And they certainly were grown very high in their own Opinion, and had a very low esteem for the Lords, when they neglected the safety of their best Friends in that House, and did almost with scorn refuse the passing of the Bill for the more fair and equal Trial of Peers, which in several Sessions was sent down to them. How great were the apprehensions of all sober and wise Men at every meeting of this present Parliament during these late years, and how much is to be ascribed to the goodness of our Prince, and to the vertue of the Members of this present House of Commons, that Honours, Offices, Pensions, Money, Imployments and Gifts had not been bestowed and accepted, and the Government, as in France, Denmark and other Countries, made absolute and at the will of the Prince? How easie this may be done in future Ages under such Princes, and such an House of Commons as may happen, if long and continued Parliaments be allowed for Law, may be made some measure of by this, where though the Prince had no design, and the Members of the House of Commons have shewed so great Candor and Self-denial, yet the best Observers are apt to think that we owe it to the strong and opposite Factions at Court, that many things of great Alterations have not passed.
And moreover, it cannot be passed over with silence, nor considered without great thoughts of heart, to what a price a Member of the House of Commons place is come. In former times when Parliaments were short and frequent, The Members constantly received their wages both of their Counties and Burroughs; many of the poorer Burroughs petitioned to be excused from sending Members, as not being able to bear their charge; and were so. Laws were made in favour of the Gentry, that Corporations should compel none but their Freemen of their own Town to serve for them; Nay you shall find in all the ancient Returns of Writs for Knights of the Shires, their Sureties for their appearance returned with them. But now the case is altered, £.1500 and £.2000 and lately £.7000 is a price Men pay to be intrusted: ’Tis to be hoped the Charity of those worthy Persons, and their Zeal for the Publique Interest has induced them to be at this Expence; But it were better to be otherwise, and there is a scurvy English Proverb, That Men that buy dear, cannot live by selling cheap. And besides all these, the very priviledge of the Members, and of those they protect in a Parliament of so long duration, is a pressure that the Nation cannot well support itself under; So many thousand Suits of Law stopt, so vast a Sum of Money withheld from the right owners, so great a quantity of Land unjustly possessed, and in many Cases the length of time securing the possession, and creating a Title. And ’tis an Observation not unworthy the making, that all this extent of Priviledge beyond its due bounds has first risen from the Members of the House of Commons; That House to this day pretends to forty days’ priviledge before and after Parliament, the House of Lords but twenty, and yet the priviledge of Parliament is the same to both: and if the House of Commons obtain their forty days to become Law and Custom, the Lords will certainly enjoy the same priviledge. But the cure of this Evil is very easy in frequent and short Parliaments, The Members will affect no larger priviledges than are necessary and useful to them, for such as oppress and injure others cannot expect a second choice, and the present time is but short.
To all this there are two Objections that make a great sound, but have really nothing of weight in them; The first Objection is, That the Crown is in danger if you call a new Parliament. If those men be in earnest that urge this, it were to be wished they would consider well what are the Men are likely to be chosen; and they are not difficult to be guest at through the whole Kingdom, Men of Quality, of Estates, and of the best Understanding. Such will never affect change, or disturb the King’s Government. A New Parliament will be the Nation, and that will never stick at finall matters to render themselves acceptable to their Prince. Would the King have acquaintance with his People? This is his way. Would he have yet more the love of his People? Thus he is sure to have it. Would the King have a considerable sum of Money to pay his Debts and put him at ease? Thus he cannot fail of it, nay he shall have it as a pledge of endearment between him and his people, they give it themselves, and they know the King receives it as from them. The English Nation are a generous people, and have at all times exprest themselves ready to supply even the Humours, and Excesses of their Princes, and some of the best beloved Princes we have had were such as by Warr, or otherwise put us to most Expence: Witness Edward the 1st, Edward the 3d, and Henry the 5th; but then always they were satisfied that the Honour of the Nation was preserved, and whatever private or personal Excesses the Prince had, yet the Nation was secure, there was no design upon them, neither should their money or their strength be used against them. All this is the happiness of our present state under our most gracious King. But how shall the People know and be secure it is so, but by those they annually send up to Parliament from amongst themselves; Whereas if the King should have a great Sum of Money given by this Parliament, it would be lookt upon as theirs, not as the People’s gift, and the best of Men with their Circumstances cannot avoid the suspicion, when they give much to have received some; and men will not so chearfully undergo the Burthen of a Tax, and their own Wants in the time of this general Poverty, when they apprehend others have the Thanks, and perhaps the Reward of their Sufferings.
The second Objection is with great apprehensions and passion urged by the Bishops; That the Church and this Parliament fall together. Which Objection how vain it is you will easily confess, if (as was said before) the persons that are like to be chosen be considered, The dissenting Protestants may very probably find more Favour and ease, but the Church can never suffer, either in her Lands or Dignities she now enjoys, by an House of Commons consisting of Men of the best Quality and Estates in England, as the next certainly will do. But, on the other side, what do the Bishops mean by this Assertion? Most certainly it is not their intent to make the Interest of the Church and the Nation direct opposit and inconsistent one with the other; and yet in saying this they confess, that this House of Commons are not the true Representatives of those they serve for; that the People and they are of different minds; that if they were to choose again, they would choose other men of other sentiments. And it must be confessed that whatever is not natural is by force, and must be maintained by force. A standing Parliament and a standing Army are like those Twins that have their lower parts united, and are divided only above the Navel; they were born together, and cannot long outlive each other. Certainly that man is no friend to the Church that wishes it a third incorporated with those two.
To conclude this Debate, the continuance of this present Parliament any longer is unpracticable; the breach this House of Commons has made upon the Lords is as unlikely to be repaired with these present Men, as it is to be renewed by another House of Commons of a new Election. If you consider the Power, the Courtship, and the Addresses that these Men have for so many years enjoyed and received, they may almost be forgiven if they think themselves greater Men than the Lords in the higher House; besides it is very well known that many of the ablest and most worthy Patriots amongst them have carried this Difference to the greatest height with this only design, that by this means they might deliver the Nation from the danger and pressure of a long continued Parliament: Whereas a new chosen House of Commons, especially if it were fixt, and known that it could not remain long, could not be apprehended to have any affectation to exceed their just bounds, nor to renew a Contest, where the Interest of the People is manifestly on the Lords’ side; for besides the undoubted Right and constant Practice that the Lords enjoy in the Case of Appeals from Courts of Equity, all other Expedients when well considered, give the Crown, the Favourites and Ministers the power over every man’s Estate in England.
Thus you see ’tis the Interest of all sorts of men to have a New Parliament; This will give the King constant and never-failing Supplies with the hearts and good-will of his People: This will not only preserve the Church in the Honours, Dignities and Revenues she now enjoys, and make her the Protectrix and Asylum of all the Protestants through Europe, but will also encrease the Maintenance of the Ministry in Corporations and great Towns, which is now much wanting, and of great concern to the Church. This will procure the dissenting Protestants Ease, Liberty, and Protection. The Papists may justly expect by this to be delivered from that grievous pressure of penal Laws they lie under, if they can be contented with being deprived of access to Court, bearing Offices or Arms. The great Officers and Ministers may under this enjoy their places undisturbed and in quiet, and be secure with a moderate Conduct, and reasonable Condescentions to attain that in a new Parliament which they have by experience found is impossible in the old. In a word, there is not to be imagined an Interest against this, unless there be an inveterate party still remaining in our World, who to compass their Revenge, and repair their broken Fortunes, would hope to see the Act of Oblivion set aside, and this happy Monarchy turned into an absolute, Arbitrary, Military Government; But Charity bids us hope there are no such Men.
[1. ]Honors change customs.
[2. ]See House of Commons, 13 April 1671, CJ, IX, 235, 239, 509.