Front Page Titles (by Subject) SPEECH ON THE SECOND READING OF THE BILL TO AMEND THE REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE OF ENGLAND AND WALES. DELIVERED IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS, ON THE 4 th OF JULY, 1831. - The Miscellaneous Works
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SPEECH ON THE SECOND READING OF THE BILL TO AMEND THE REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE OF ENGLAND AND WALES. DELIVERED IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS, ON THE 4 th OF JULY, 1831. - Sir James Mackintosh, The Miscellaneous Works 
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SPEECH ON THE SECOND READING OF THE BILL TO AMEND THE REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE OF ENGLAND AND WALES.
I feel no surprise, and certainly no regret, at the applause which followed the speech of the Honourable and Learned Gentleman,* whose speeches never leave any unpleasant impression, but the reflection that he speaks so seldom. Much of that excellent speech so immediately bears on the whole question of Parliamentary Reform, that it will naturally lead me to the consideration of the general principle of the Bill before us.
I must, Sir, however, premise a very few remarks on the speech of the Honourable Baronet;* though I shall not follow him through his account of the squabble between the labourers and their employers at Merthyr Tidvil, which I leave to the justice of the law, or, what is better, to the prudence and principle of both parties. Neither can I seriously handle his objection to this Bill, that it has produced a strong interest, and divided opinions throughout the kingdom. Such objections prove too much: they would exclude most important questions, and, certainly, all reformatory measures. It is one of the chief advantages of free governments, that they excite,—sometimes to an inconvenient degree, but, upon the whole, with the utmost benefit,—all the generous feelings, all the efforts for a public cause, of which human nature is capable. But there is one point in the ingenious speech of the Honourable Baronet, which, as it touches the great doctrines of the Constitution, and involves a reflection on the conduct of many Members of this House, cannot be passed over, without an exposition of the fallacy which shuts his eyes to very plain truths.—Mr. Burke, in the famous speech at Bristol, told, indeed, his constituents, that as soon as he should be elected, however much he might respect their opinions, his votes must be governed by his own conscience. This doctrine was indisputably true. But did he not, by his elaborate justification of his public conduct, admit their jurisdiction over it, and acknowledge, that if he failed in converting them, they had an undoubted right to reject him? Then, if they could justly reject him, for differing from what they thought right, it follows, most evidently, that they might, with equal justice, refuse their suffrages to him, if they thought his future votes likely to differ from those which they deemed indispensable to the public weal. If they doubted what that future conduct might be, they were entitled, and bound, to require a satisfactory explanation, either in public or in private; and in case of unsatisfactory, or of no explanation, to refuse their support to the candidate. This duty the people may exercise in whatever form they deem most effectual. They impose no restriction on the conscience of the candidate; they only satisfy their own conscience, by rejecting a candidate, of whose conduct, on the most momentous question, they have reason to doubt. Far less could constituents be absolved, on the present occasion, from the absolute duty of ascertaining the determination of candidates on the subject of Parliamentary Reform. His Majesty, in his speech from the throne, on the 22d of April, was pleased to declare, “I have come to meet you, for the purpose of proroguing Parliament, with a view to its immediate dissolution. I have been induced to resort to this measure, for the purpose of ascertaining the sense of my people, in the way in which it can be most constitutionally and authentically expressed, on the expediency of making such changes in the representation as circumstances may appear to require; and which, founded upon the acknowledged principles of the Constitution, may tend at once to uphold the just rights and prerogatives of the Crown, and to give security to the liberties of the subject.” What answer could the people have made to the appeal thus generously made to them, without taking all necessary means to be assured that the votes of those, whom they chose, would sufficiently manifest to him the sense of his people, on the changes necessary to be made in the representation.
On subjects of foreign policy, Sir, a long silence has been observed on this side of the House,—undisturbed, I am bound to add, by the opposite side, for reasons which are very obvious. We are silent, and we are allowed to be silent; because, a word spoken awry, might occasion fatal explosions. The affairs of the Continent are so embroiled, that we have forborne to express those feelings, which must agitate the breast of every human being, at the sight of that admirable and afflicting struggle* on which the eyes of Europe are constantly, however silently, fixed. As it is admitted by the Honourable Baronet, that the resistance of the French to an usurpation of their rights last year was glorious to all who were concerned in it, it follows that, being just, it has no need of being sanctioned by the approbation of fortune. Who then are morally answerable for the unfortunate confusions which followed, and for the further commotion, which, if heaven avert it not, may convulse France and Europe? Who opened the floodgates of discord on mankind? Not the friends of liberty,—not the advocates of popular principles: their hands are clean;—they took up arms only to defend themselves against wrong. I hold sacred every retreat of misfortune, and desire not to disturb fallen greatness; but justice compels me to say, that the hands of the late King of France were made to unlock these gates by his usurping ordinances,—
“To open; but to shut surpassed his power.”
The dangers of Europe do not originate in democratical principles, or democratical power, but in a conspiracy for the subversion of all popular rights, however sanctioned by oaths, by constitution, and by laws.
I shall now, Sir, directly proceed to the latter part of the speech of the Honourable and Learned Member for Boroughbridge, which regards the general principle and character of this Bill. In so doing, I shall endeavour, as far as may be, not to displease the fastidious ears of the Honourable Baronet, by frequently repeating the barbarous names of the Tudors and Plantagenets. I must, however, follow the Honourable and Learned Member to the fountains of our government and laws, whither, indeed, he calls upon me with no unfriendly voice to accompany him.
That no example can be found from the time of Simon de Montfort to the present year, either in the practice of ancient legislation, or in the improvements proposed by modern Reformers, which sanctions the general principle of this Bill, is an assertion, which I am sure the Honourable Gentleman will discover to be unadvisedly hazarded.
I shall begin with one of the latest examples of a Reformer of great weight and authority,—that which is afforded by the speech and the plan of Mr. Pitt, in 1785, because it does not only itself exhibit the principle of the schedules of this Bill, but because it proves, beyond all possibility of dispute, his thorough conviction that this principle is conformable to the ancient laws and practice of the constitution. The principle of Schedules A. and B. is the abolition, partial or total, of the elective rights of petty and dependent boroughs. The principle of Schedules C. D. and E. is the transfer of that resumed right to great towns, and to other bodies of constituents deemed likely to use it better. Let me now state Mr. Pitt’s opinion, in his own words, on the expediency of acting on both these principles, and on the agreement of both with the ancient course and order of the constitution. His plan, it is well known, was to take away seventy-two members from thirty-six small boroughs, and to add them to the county representation, with a permanent provision for such other transfers of similar rights to great towns, as should from time to time seem necessary. His object, in this disfranchisement and enfranchisement, was, according to his own words, “to make the House of Commons an assembly which should have the closest union, and the most perfect sympathy with the mass of the people.” To effect this object, he proposed to buy up these boroughs by the establishment of a fund, (cheers from the Opposition,) of which the first effect was expected to be considerable, and the accumulation would prove an irresistible temptation. Gentlemen would do well to hear the whole words of Mr. Pitt, before they so loudly exult:—“It is an indisputable doctrine of antiquity, that the state of the representation is to be changed with the change of circumstances. Change in the borough representation was frequent. A great number of the boroughs, originally Parliamentary, had been disfranchised,—that is, the Crown had ceased to summon them to send burgesses. Some of these had been restored on their petitions: the rest had not recovered their lost franchise. Considering the restoration of the former, and the deprivation of the latter, the constitution had been grossly violated, if it was true (which he denied,) that the extension of the elective franchise to one set of boroughs, and the resumption of it from others, was a violation of the constitution. The alterations were not made from principle; but they were founded on the general notion which gave the discretionary power to the Crown,—viz., that the principal places, and not the decayed boroughs, should exercise the right of election.”* I know full well that these boroughs were to be bought. I also know, that the late Member for Dorset (Mr. Bankes), the college-friend, the zealous but independent supporter of Mr. Pitt, exclaimed against the purchase, though he applauded the Reform. How did Mr. Pitt answer? Did he say, I cannot deprive men of inviolable privileges without compensation; I cannot promote Reform by injustice? Must he not have so answered, if he had considered the resumption of the franchise as “corporation robbery?” No! he excuses himself to his friend: he declares the purchase to be “the tender part of the subject,” and apologizes for it, as “having become a necessary evil, if any Reform was to take place.” Would this great master of language, who so thoroughly understood and practised precision and propriety of words, have called that a necessary evil which he thought an obligation of justice,—the payment of a sacred debt? It is clear from the very words that follow,—“if any Reform were to take place,” that he regarded the price of the boroughs merely as a boon to so many borough-holders to become proselytes to it. It is material also to observe, that as compensation was no part of his plans or suggestions in 1782 and 1783, he could not have consistently represented it as of right due. Another decisive reason renders it impossible to annex any other meaning to his language:—he justifies his system of transferring the franchise by analogy to the ancient practice of ceasing to summon some boroughs to send members, while the prerogative of summoning others at pleasure was acknowledged. But the analogy would have failed, if he thought compensation was due; for it is certain that no compensation was dreamt of, till his own plan. Would he have so strenuously maintained the constitutional authority to disfranchise and enfranchise different places, if he had entertained the least suspicion that it could not be exercised without being justly characterised as an act of rapine? Another circumstance is conclusive:—his plan, as may be seen in his speech, was to make the compensation to the borough-holders,—not to the poor freemen, the scot and lot voters, the pot-walloppers,—whose spoliation has been so much deprecated on this occasion,—who alone could have had any pretence of justice or colour of law to claim it. They at least had legal privileges: the compensation to the borough-holders was to be for the loss of their profits by breaches of law. One passage only in Mr. Pitt’s speech, may be thought favourable to another sense:—“To a Reform by violence he had an insurmountable objection.” Now these words might mean only an objection to effect his purpose by an act of the supreme power, when he could introduce the same good by milder means. The reports of that period were far less accurate than they now are: the general tenor of the speech must determine the meaning of a single word. It seems to me impossible to believe, that he could have intended more than that he preferred a pacific accommodation of almost any sort to formidable resistance, and the chance of lasting discontent. This preference, founded either on personal feelings, or on supposed expediency, is nothing against my present purpose. What an imputation would be thrown on his memory, by supposing that he who answered the objection of Reform being unconstitutional, could pass over the more serious objection that it was unjust.
That I may not be obliged to return to this case, I shall add one other observation, which more strictly belongs to another part of the argument. Mr. Pitt never once hints, that the dependent boroughs were thought necessary to the security of property. It never occurred to him that any one could think them intrinsically good. It was impossible that he could propose to employ a million sterling in demolishing the safeguards of the British constitution. Be it observed, that this remark must be considered by all who respect the authority of Mr. Pitt as of great weight, even if they believe compensation and voluntary surrender to be essential to the justice of transferring the elective franchise. It must, then, I think, be acknowledged by the Honourable and Learned Member for Aldborough himself, that there was a Reformer of great name before my Noble Friend, who maintained the transfer of the elective franchise, by disfranchisement and enfranchisement, to be conformable to ancient rights or usages, and for that reason, among others, fit to be employed as parts of a plan of Parliamentary Reform.*
The two plans of Reform, Sir, that have been proposed, during the last seventy years, may be divided into the Simultaneous and the Progressive. Of the first it is manifest, that the two expedients of resuming the franchise from those who cannot use it for the public good, and bestowing it where it will probably be better employed, are indispensable, or rather essential parts. I shall presently show that it is impossible to execute the most slowly Progressive scheme of Reformation, without some application, however limited, of these now altogether proscribed principles.
I do not wish to displease the Honourable Baronet by frequent or extensive excursions into the Middle Ages; but the Honourable and Learned Gentleman will admit that the right of the Crown to summon new boroughs, was never disputed until its last exercise by Charles II. in the well-known instance of Newark. In the Tudor reigns, this prerogative had added one hundred and fifty members to this House. In the forty-five years of Elizabeth, more than sixty were received into it. From the accession of Henry VII. to the disuse of the prerogative, the representation received an accession of about two hundred, if we include the cases where representation was established by Parliament, and those where, after a disuse of centuries, it was so restored. Let me add, without enlarging on it, that forty-four boroughs, and a city, which anciently sent burgesses to this House, are unrepresented at this day. I know no Parliamentary mode of restoring their franchises, but by a statute, which would be in effect a new grant. I believe, that if such matters were cognizable by courts of law, the judges would presume, or, for greater security, advise a jury to presume, after a disuse of so many centuries, that it had originated either in a surrender, or in some other legal mode of terminating the privilege. According to the common maxim, that there is no right without a remedy, we may infer the absence of right from the absence of remedy. In that case, the disuse of granting summonses by the King, or his officers, must be taken to have been legal, in spite of the authority of Serjeant Glanville and his Committee, who, in the reign of James I., held the contrary doctrine. But I waive this question, because the answer to it is needless to the purpose of my argument. It is enough for me that the disuse had been practically maintained, without being questioned, till the end of James’ reign; and that it still shuts our doors on ninety persons who might otherwise be chosen to sit in this House. The practice of resuming the franchise, therefore, prevailed as certainly in ancient times, as the exercise of the prerogative of conferring it. The effect of both combined, was to take from the representation the character of immutability, and to bestow on it that flexibility which, if it had been then properly applied, might have easily fitted it for every change of circumstances. These powers were never exercised on any fixed principle. The prerogative was often grievously abused; but the abuse chiefly consisted in granting the privilege to beggarly villages, or to the manor or demesne of a favoured lord: there are few examples of withholding the franchise from considerable towns. On a rapid review of the class of towns next in importance to London, such as York, Bristol, Exeter, Norwich, Lincoln, &c., it appears to me, that they all sent Members to the House of Commons of Edward I. Boston did not occur to me; but, admitting the statement respecting that place to be accurate, the Honourable and Learned Gentleman must allow this instance to be at variance with the general spirit and tendency of the ancient constitution, in the distribution of elective privileges. I do not call it an exception to a rule; for there were no rules: it was no departure from principle; for no general principle was professed, or, perhaps, thought of: but it was at variance with that disposition not to leave grant towns unrepresented, which, though not reduced to system, yet practically influenced the coarse good sense of our ancestors, and, what is remarkable, is most discernible in the earliest part of their legislation.*
It was not the Union with Scotland that stopped the exercise of the prerogative. With the exception of Newark, there was no instance of its exertion for nearly seventy years before that date. We know that the Stuart Kings dreaded an increase of members in this House, as likely to bestow a more democratical character on its proceedings: but still the true cause of the extinction of the prerogative, was the jealousy of a people become more enlightened, and suspicious of a power which had already been abused, and which might be made the means of enslaving the kingdom. The discussions in this House respecting the admission of the members for Newark, though they ended favourably to the Crown in that instance, afforded such a specimen of the general sentiments and temper respecting the prerogative, that no man was bold enough to advise its subsequent exercise.
The course of true wisdom would have been to regulate the employment of the prerogative by a law, which, acting quietly, calmly, but constantly, would have removed or prevented all gross inequality in the representation. It would have then been necessary only to enact that every town, which grew to a certain number of houses, should be summoned to send members to Parliament, and that every town which fell below a certain number, should cease to be so summoned. The consequence of this neglect became apparent as the want of some remedial power was felt. The regulator of the representation, which had been injuriously active in stationary times, was suffered to drop from the machine at a moment when it was much needed to adapt the elective system to the rapid and prodigious changes which have occurred in the state of society,—when vast cities have sprung up in every province, and the manufacturing world may be said to have been created. There was no longer any renovating principle in the frame of the constitution. All the marvellous works of industry and science are unnoticed in our system of representation. The changes of a century and a half since the case of Newark,—the social revolution of the last sixty years, have altered the whole condition of mankind more than did the three centuries which passed before:—the representation alone has stood still. It is to this interruption of the vis medicatrix et conservatrix of the commonwealth that we owe the necessity of now recurring to the extensive plan of Simultaneous Reform, of which I do not dispute the inconveniences. We are now called on to pay the arrears of a hundred and sixty years of an unreformed representation. The immediate settlement of this constitutional balance is now difficult;—it may not be without danger: but it is become necessary that we may avoid ruin. It may soon be impossible to save us by that, or by any other means.
But, Sir, we are here met by a serious question, which, being founded on a principle generally true, acquires a great effect by specious application. We are reminded by the Honourable and Learned Gentleman, that governments are to be valued for their beneficial effects,—not for their beauty as ingenious pieces of machinery. We are asked, what is the practical evil which we propose to remove, or even to lesson, by Reform? We are told, that the representative system “works well,” and that the excellence of the English constitution is attested by the admirable fruits, which for at least a century and a half it has produced. I dare not take the high ground of denying the truth of the facts thus alleged. God forbid that I should ever derogate from the transcendent merits of the English constitution, which it has been the chief occupation of my life to study, and which I now seek, because I love it, to reform!
Much as I love and revere this constitution, I must say, that, during the last century, the representative system has not worked well. I do not mean to undervalue its general results: but it has not worked well for one grand purpose, without which, no other benefit can be safe:—the means employed in elections, has worked all respect for the constitution out of the hearts of the people. The foulness and shamefulness, or the fraud and mockery of borough elections, have slowly weaned the people from their ancient attachments. With less competence, perhaps, than others, to draw up the general comparison between the good and evil results, they were shocked by the barefaced corruption which the increasing frequency of contests constantly brought home to them. These disgusting scenes could not but uproot attachment to the government to which they seemed to pertain. The people could see nothing venerable in venality,—in bribery,—in the sale of some, and in the gift of other seats,—in nominal elections carried on by individuals, under the disguise of popular forms.
It is true, that the vile machinery of openly marketable votes, was the most powerful cause which alienated them. But half the nomination-boroughs were so marketable. Though I know one nomination borough* where no seat was ever sold,—where no Member ever heard a whisper of the wishes of a patron,—where One Member at least was under no restraint beyond the ties of political opinion and friendship, which he voluntarily imposed upon himself. It does not become me to say how the Member to whom I advert would have acted in other circumstances; but I am firmly convinced that the generous nature of the other Party would as much recoil from imposing dependency, as any other could recoil from submitting to it. I do not pretend to say that this is a solitary instance: but I believe it to be too favourable a one to be a fair sample of the general practice.
Even in the best cases, the pretended election was an eye-sore to all that witnessed it. A lie was solemnly acted before their eyes. While the popular principles of the constitution had taught them that popular elections belonged to the people, all the acts that the letter of the law had expressly forbidden were now become the ordinary means of obtaining a Parliamentary seat. These odious and loathsome means became more general as the country increased in wealth, and as the people grew better informed,—more jealous of encroachment on their rights, and more impatient of exclusion from power. In the times of the Stuarts and Tudors, the burgesses, as we see from the lists, had been very generally the sons of neighbouring gentlemen, chosen with little contest and noise, and so seldom open to the charge of bribery, that when it occurred, we find it mentioned as a singular event. It was not till after the Revolution that monied candidates came from the Capital to invade a tranquillity very closly allied to blind submission. At length, the worst of all practical effects was produced:—the constitution sunk in popular estimation; the mass of the people were estranged from the objects of their hereditary reverence. An election is the part of our constitution with which the multitude come into most frequent contact. Seeing in many of them nothing but debauchery,—riot,—the sale of a right to concur in making law,—the purchase in open market of a share in the choice of lawgivers,—absolute nomination under the forms of election, they were conscious that many immoral, many illegal practices became habitual, and were even justified. Was it not natural for the majority of honest men to form their judgments rather by means of their moral feelings, than as the results of refined arguments, founded on a calm comparison of evils? Such at least was the effect of this most mischievous practice, that when any misfortune of the country, any error of the Government, any commotion abroad, or any disorder at home arose, they were all ascribed, with exaggeration, but naturally, to the corruption, which the humblest of the people saw had tainted the vital organs of the commonwealth.
My Honourable and Excellent Friend, the Member for the University of Oxford,* indeed told the last Parliament, that the clamours about the state of the representation were only momentary cries, which, however magnified at the moment, always quickly yielded to a vigorous and politic government He might have looked back somewhat farther. What were the Place Bills and Triennial Bills of Sir Robert Walpole’s time? Were they not, in truth, demands of Parliamentary Reform? The cry is therefore one of the symptoms of a distemper, which has lasted for a century. But to come to his more recent examples:—in 1770, Lord Chatham was the agitator; Mr. Burke was the incendiary pamphleteer, who exaggerated the importance of a momentary delusion, which was to subside as quickly as it had risen. Unfortunately for this reasoning, though the delusion subsided after 1770, it revived again in 1780, under Sir George Saville; under Mr. Pitt in 1782, 1783, and 1784: it was felt at the time of Mr. Flood’s motion in 1790. Lord Grey’s motion in 1797 was supported by respectable Tories, such as Sir William Dolben, Sir Rowland Hill, and by conscientious men, more friendly to Mr. Pitt than to his opponents, of whom it is enough to name Mr. Henry Thornton, then Member for Surrey. Instead of being the expressions of a transient delusion, these constantly recurring complaints are the symptoms of a deep-rooted malady, sometimes breaking out, sometimes dying away, sometimes repelled, but always sure to return,—re-appearing with resistless force in the elections of 1830, and still more decisively in those of 1831. If we seek for proof of an occasional provocation, which roused the people to a louder declaration of their opinions, where shall we find a more unexceptionable witness, than in one of the ablest and most unsparing opponents of the Ministers and of their Bill. Mr. Henry Drummond, in his very able Address to the Freeholders of Surrey, explicitly ascribes the irritation which now prevails to the unwise language of the late Ministers. The declaration of the late Ministers against Reform, says he, “proved their gross ignorance of the national feeling, and drove the people of England to despair.”
Many allege, Sir, that the people have gained so much strength and influence through the press, that they need no formal privileges or legal franchises to reinforce it. If it be so, I consider it to be a decisive reason for a reformation of the scheme of the representation. A country in which the masses are become powerful by their intelligence and by their wealth, while they are exasperated by exclusion from political rights, never can be in a safe condition. I hold it to be one of the most invariable maxims of legislation, to bind to the constitution, by the participation of legal privilege, all persons who have risen in wealth,—in intelligence,—in any of the legitimate sources of ascendancy. I would do now what our forefathers, though rudely aimed at doing, by calling into the national councils every rising element in the body politic.
The grand objection to this Bill, Sir, is what ought to be fatal to any Bill, if the objection had any foundation but loud and bold assertion,—that it is unjust. This argument was never, indeed, urged by the Right Honourable Baronet, and it seems to be on the eve of being abandoned. But the walls of the House still seem to resound with the vociferations of my Honourable and Learned Friend, the Member for Boroughbridge,* against what he called “corporation robbery.” Now many of these boroughs have no corporations at all; while none who have will be deprived of their corporate rights. But if all these corporations had been about to be divested of their character,—divested of rights which have been, or are likely to be abused, the term “robbery” would have been ridiculously inapplicable. Examples are more striking than general reasonings. Was the disuse of issuing Writs of Summons, as a consequence of which near a hundred Members are excluded from this House, an act of “robbery?” Was the Union with Scotland, which reduced the borough representation from sixty-five to fifteen, an act of “robbery?” Yes, surely it was, if the term can be properly applied to this Bill. The Scotch boroughs were thrown into clusters of four and five, each of which sent a burgess. But if it be “robbery” to take away the whole of a franchise, is it not in principle as violent an invasion of property to take away fourfifths or three-fourths of it. What will be said of the Union with Ireland? Was it “robbery” to reduce her representation from three hundred to one hundred Members? Was it “robbery” to disfranchise, as they did then, one hundred boroughs, on the very principle of the present Bill,—because they were decayed, dependent, and so unfit to exercise the franchise? Was it “robbery” to deprive the Peers of Scotland of their birthright, and compel them to be contented with a bare possibility of being occasionally elected? Was it “robbery” to mutilate the legislative rights of the Irish Peerage? No! because in all these cases, the powers taken away or limited were trusts resumable by Parliament for the general well-being.
Further, I contend that if this be “robbery,” every borough disfranchised for corruption has been “robbed” of its rights. Talk not to me of the guilt of these boroughs: individuals are innocent or guilty,—bodies politic can be neither. If disfranchisement be considered as a punishment, where is the trial,—where are the witnesses on oath,—where are the precautions against partiality,—where are the responsible judges?—who, indeed, are the judges? men who have avowedly committed and have justified as constitutional the very offence. Why, in such cases, are the unborn punished for the offences of the present generation. Why should the innocent minority suffer for the sins of a venal majority? If the rights of unoffending parties are reserved, of what importance is the reservation, if they are to be merged in those of hundreds or thousands of fellow-voters? Would not the opening of the suffrage in the city of Bath be as destructive to the close Corporation as if they were to be by name disfranchised? Viewed in that light, every Bill of Disfranchisement is a Bill of Pains and Penalties, and in the nature of a Bill of Attainder. How are these absurdities avoided?—only by the principle of this Bill,—that political trust may be justly resumed by the supreme power, whenever it is deemed injurious to the commonwealth.
The test, Sir, which distinguishes property from trust, is simple, and easily applied:—property exists for the benefit of the proprietor; political power exists only for the service of the state. Property is, indeed, the most useful of all human institutions: it is so, because the power of every man to do what he will with his own, is beneficial and even essential to the existence of society. A trustee is legally answerable for the abuse of his power: a proprietor is not amenable to human law for any misuse of his property, unless it should involve a direct violation of the rights of others. It is said, that property is a trust; and so it may, in figurative language, be called: but it is a moral, not a legal one. In the present argument, we have to deal only with the latter. The confusion of the ideas misled the Stuarts so far, that they thought the kingdom their property, till they were undeceived by the Revolution, which taught us, that man cannot have a property in his fellow. As all government is a trust, the share which each voter has in the nomination of lawgivers is one also. Otherwise, if the voter, as such, were a proprietor, he must have a property in his fellow citizens, who are governed by laws, of which he has a share in naming the makers. If the doctrine of the franchise being property be admitted, all Reform is for ever precluded. Even the enfranchisement of new boroughs, or districts, must be renounced; for every addition diminishes the value of the previous suffrage: and it is no more lawful to lessen the value of property, than to take it away.
Of all doctrines which threaten the principle of property, none more dangerous was ever promulgated, than that which confounds it with political privileges. None of the disciples of St. Simon, or of the followers of the ingenious and benevolent Owen, have struck so deadly a blow at it, as those who would reduce it to the level of the elective rights of Gatton and Old Sarum. Property, the nourisher of mankind,—the incentive to industry,—the cement of human society,—will be in a perilous condition, if the people be taught to identify it with political abuse, and to deal with it as being involved in its impending fate. Let us not teach the spoilers of future times to represent our resumption of a right of suffrage as a precedent for their seizure of lands and possessions.
Much is said in praise of the practice of nomination, which is now called “the most unexceptionable part of our representation.” To nomination, it seems, we owe the talents of our young Members,—the prudence and experience of the more aged. It supplies the colonies and dependencies of this great empire with virtual representation in this House. By it commercial and funded property finds skilful advocates and intrepid defenders. All these happy consequences are ascribed to that flagrant system of breaches of the law, which is now called “the practice of the English constitution.”
Sir, I never had, and have not now, any objection to the admission of representatives of the colonies into this House, on fair and just conditions. But I cannot conceive that a Bill which is objected to, as raising the commercial interest at the expense of the landed, will also lessen the safeguards of their property. Considering the well-known and most remarkable subdivision of funded income,—the most minutely divided of any mass of property,—I do not believe that any representatives, or even any constituents, could be ultimately disposed to do themselves so great an injury as to invade it. Men of genius, and men of experience, and men of opulence, have found their way into this House through nomination, or worse means,—through any channel that was open: the same classes of candidates will now direct their ambition and their efforts to the new channels opened by the present Bill; they will attain their end by only varying their means.
A list has been read to us of illustrious men who found an introduction to Parliament, or a refuge from unmerited loss of popularity, by means of decayed boroughs. What does such a catalogue prove, but that England, for the last sixty years, has been a country full of ability,—of knowledge,—of intellectual activity,—of honourable ambition, and that a large portion of these qualities has flowed into the House of Commons? Might not the same dazzling common-places have been opposed to the abolition of the court of the Star Chamber? “What,” it might have been said, “will you, in your frantic rage of innovation, demolish the tribunal in which Sir Thomas More, the best of men, and Lord Bacon, the greatest of philosophers, presided,—where Sir Edward Coke, the oracle of law,—where Burleigh and Walsingham, the most revered of English statesmen, sat as judges,—which Bacon, enlightened by philosophy and experience, called the peculiar glory of our legislation, as being ‘a court of criminal equity?’ Will you, in your paroxysms of audacious frenzy, abolish this Prætorian tribunal,—this sole instrument for bridling popular incendiaries? Will you dare to persevere in your wild purpose, at a moment when Scotland is agitated by a rebellious League and Covenant,—when Ireland is threatened with insurrection and massacre? Will you surrender the shield of the crown,—the only formidable arm of prerogative,—at a time when his Majesty’s authority is openly defied in the capital where we are assembled?”
I cannot, indeed, Sir, recollect a single instance in that long course of reformation, which constitutes the history of the English constitution, where the same plausible arguments, and the same exciting topics, might not have been employed as are now pointed against the present measure. The Honourable and Learned Gentleman has alluded to Simon de Montfort,—the first and most extensive Parliamentary Reformer,—who placed the representatives of the burgesses in Parliament. The haughty and unlettered Barons disdained argument, but their murmurs were doubtless loud and vehement. Even they could exclaim that the new constitution was an “untried scheme,’—that it was a “daring experiment,”—that it “would level all the distinctions of society,”—that it would throw the power of the state into the hands of traffickers and burgesses. Were men but yesterday slaves, now to be seated by the side of Plantagenets engaged in the arduous duty of making laws? Are these not the topics which are substantially used against Parliamentary Reform? They are now belied by experience, which has taught us that the adoption of the lower classes into the constitution, the concessions made to them, and the widening of the foundation of the legislature, have been the source of peace, of order, of harmony,—of all that is excellent in our government, and of all that secures the frame of our society. The Habeas Corpus Act, in the reign of Charles the Second, was obtained only by repeated, persevering, unwearied exertions of the Earl of Shaftesbury, after a meritorious struggle of many years. I mention the facts with pleasure in the presence of his descendant.* It is now well known, from the confidential correspondence of Charles and his brother James, that they both believed sincerely that a government without the power of arbitrary imprisonment would not long exist; and that Shaftesbury had forced this Act upon them, in order either to expose them unarmed to the populace, or to drive them to have recourse to the odious and precarious protection of a standing army. The belief of the Royal Brothers was the more incorrigible, because it was sincere. It is the fatal effect of absolute power to corrupt the judgment of its possessors, and to insinuate into their minds the false and pernicious opinion, that power is always weakened by limitation.
Shall I be told, that the sale of seats is not in itself an evil? The same most ingenious person† who hazarded this paradox, quoted the example of the sale of the judicial office in Old France, with a near approach to approbation. That practice has been vindicated by French writers of great note; and it had, in fact, many guards and limitations not to be found in our system of marketable boroughs: but it has been swept away by the Revolution; and there is now no man disposed to palliate its shameless enormity. The grossest abuses, as long as they prevail, never want advocates to find out specious mitigations of their effects: their downfall discovers their deformity to every eye. For my part, I do not see, why the sale of a power to make laws should not be as immoral as the sale of a power to administer them.
We have heard it said, Sir, that the Peerage, and even the Monarchy, cannot survive the loss of these boroughs; and we are referred to the period that has elapsed since the Revolution, as that during which this influence has been their main guard against popular assault and dictation. I respectfully lay aside the Crown in this debate; and in the few words that I am now about to utter, I am desirous to express myself in cautious and constitutional language. Since the Revolution,—since the defeat of the attempts to establish absolute monarchy, the English government has undoubtedly become Parliamentary. But during that time, also, the hereditary elements of the constitution have been uniformly respected as wholesome temperaments of the rashness of popular assemblies. I can discover nothing in this proposed change which will disable the Peers from usefully continuing to perform this duty. If some inconvenient diminution of the influence of great property should follow, we must encounter the risk; for nothing can, in my judgment, be more certain, than that the constitution can no longer bear the weight of the obloquy thrown upon it by our present mode of conducting elections. The community cannot afford to purchase any advantage at such an expense of private character. But so great is the natural influence of property, especially in a country where the various ranks of society have been so long bound together by friendly ties as in ours, that I can scarcely conceive any laws or institutions which could much diminish the influence of well-spent wealth, whether honourably inherited, or honestly earned.
The benefits of any reformation might indeed be hazarded, if the great proprietors were to set themselves in battle array against the permanent desires of the people. If they treat their countrymen as adversaries, they may, in their turn, excite a hostile spirit. Distrust will beget distrust: jealousy will awaken an adverse jealousy. I trust these evil consequences may not arise. The Nobility of England, in former times, have led their countrymen in the battles of liberty: those among them who are most distinguished by ample possessions, by historical names, or by hereditary fame, interwoven with the glory of their country, have, on this occasion, been the foremost to show their confidence in the people,—their unsuspecting liberality in the enlargement of popular privilege,—their reliance on the sense and honesty of their fellow-citizens, as the best safeguard of property and of order, as well as of all other interests of society. Already, this measure has exhibited a disinterestedness which has united all classes, from the highest borough-holder to the humblest nonresident freeman, in the sacrifice of their own exclusive advantages to what they think a great public good. There must be something good in what produces so noble a sacrifice.
This, Sir, is not solely a reformatory measure; it is also conciliatory. If it were proposed exclusively for the amendment of institutions, I might join in the prevalent cry “that it goes too far,” or at least “travels too fast,”—farther and faster than the maxims of wise reformation would warrant. But as it is a means of regaining national confidence, it must be guided by other maxims. In that important view of the subject, I consider the terms of this plan as of less consequence than the temper which it breathes, and the spirit by which it is animated. A conciliatory measure deserves the name only, when it is seen and felt by the simplest of men, to flow from the desire and determination to conciliate. At this moment, when, amidst many causes of discord, there is a general sympathy in favour of reformation, the superior classes of society, by opening their arms to receive the people,—by giving to the people a signal and conspicuous proof of confidence,—may reasonably expect to be trusted in return. But to reach this end, they must not only be, but appear to be, liberally just and equitably generous. Confidence can be purchased by confidence alone. If the leading classes follow the example of many of their own number,—if they show, by gracious and cheerful concessions,—by striking acts, not merely by specious language or cold formalities of law,—that they are willing to rest on the fidelity and conscience of the people, I do not believe that they will lean on a broken reed. As for those wise saws which teach us that there is always danger in trust, and that policy and generosity are at perpetual variance, I hold them in little respect. Every unbending maxim of policy is hollow and unsafe. Base principles are often not the more prudent because they are pusillanimous. I rather agree with the beautiful peroration of Mr. Burke’s second speech on North America:—“Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom: a great empire and little minds go ill together. If we are conscious of our situation, and glow with zeal to fill our place, as becomes our station and ourselves, we ought to auspicate our proceedings respecting America, with the old warning of the Church,—‘Sursum Corda.’ We ought to elevate our minds to the dignity of that trust, to which the order of Providence has called us.”
Whether we consider this measure, either as a scheme of reformation, or an attempt to form an alliance with the people, it must be always remembered, that it is a question of the comparative safety or danger of the only systems now before us for our option;—that of undistinguishing adherence to present institutions,—that of ample redress and bold reformation,—and that of niggardly, evasive, and unwilling Reform. I say “comparative” safety or danger; for not one of those who have argued this question seem to have remembered that it has two sides. They have thrown all the danger of the times upon the Reform. They load it with as much odium as if the age were otherwise altogether exempt from turbulence and agitation, and first provoked from its serene quiet by this wanton attempt. They make it answerable for mischiefs which it may not have the power to prevent, and which might have occurred if no such measure had ever been attempted. They, at least, tacitly assume that it must aggravate every evil arising from other sources. In short, they beg the whole question in dispute. They ask us, Whether there be not danger in Reform? I answer by asking them, Is there no danger in not reforming? To this question, to which they have never yet attempted to answer, I expect no answer now; because a negative one would seem to me impossible, while an affirmative would reduce the whole discussion to a cool computation and calm comparison of the different degrees of danger opening upon us.
A niggardly Reform, Sir, seems to me the most unsafe step of all systems. It cannot conciliate; for it is founded in distrust. It practically admits an evil, of which dissatisfaction is a large part; and yet it has been already proved by experience that it yet satisfied nobody. Other systems may be unsatisfactory: this scheme is so already. In the present temper of the people, and circumstances of the world, I can see no one good purpose to be answered by an evasive and delusive Reform. To what extent will they trust the determined enemies of the smallest step towards reformation,—who, to avoid the grant of the franchise to Birmingham, have broken up one Administration, and who, if they be sincere, must try every expedient to render impotent a measure which they can no longer venture avowedly to oppose.
On the other hand, Sir, the effect of the Bill before us has hitherto confirmed the opinion of those who thought that a measure of a conciliatory temper, and of large and liberal concession, would satisfy the people. The tone and scope of their petitions, which were at first extravagant, became moderate and pacific, as soon as the Bill was known. As soon as they saw so unexpected a project of substantial amendment, proceeding from sincere Reformers, they at once sacrificed all vague projects of indefinite perfection. Nothing can be more ludicrously absurd, than the supposition which has been hazarded among us, that several millions of men are such deep dissemblers,—such dark conspirators,—as to be able to conceal all their farther projects, till this Bill arms them with the means of carrying them into execution. The body of a people cannot fail to be sincere. I do not expect any measure of legislation to work miracles. Discontent may and will continue; but I believe that it will be by this measure permanently abated. Others there doubtless are, who foretell far other effects: it seems to me, that the favourers of the Bill rest their predictions on more probable foundations.
Among the numerous assumptions of our opponents, there is none which appears to me more remarkable, than their taking for granted that concession is always, or even generally, more dangerous to the stability of government than resistance. As the Right Honourable Baronet introduced several happy quotations from Cicero on this subject, which he seemed to address more particularly to me, I hope I shall not be charged with pedantry, if I begin my proofs of the contrary, with the testimony of that great writer. In the third book of his work, “De Legibus,” after having put an excellent aristocratical speech, against the tribunitian power, into the mouth of his brother Quintus, he proceeds to answer him as follows:—“Concessâ Plebi a Patribus istâ potestate, arma ceciderunt, restincta seditio est, inventum est temperamentum quo tenuiores cum principibus æquari se putarint; in quo uno fuit civitatis salus.” It will not be said, that Cicero was a radical or a demagogue, or that he had any personal cause to be favourable to the tribunitian power. It will not be said, that to grant to a few, a right to stop the progress of every public measure, was a slender, or likely to be a safe concession. The ancients had more experience of democracy, and a better knowledge of the character of demagogues, than the frame of modern society allows us the means of attaining. This great man, in spite of his natural prejudices, and just resentments, ascribes to this apparently monstrous power, not merely the spirit and energy which may be expected even from the excess of popular institutions, but whatever safety and tranquillity the commonwealth enjoyed through a series of ages. He would not, therefore, have argued as has been argued on this occasion, that if the multitude appeal to violence, before legal privileges are conferred on them, they will be guilty of tenfold excesses when they become sharers in legitimate authority. On the contrary, he lays it down in the context of the passage quoted, that their violence is abated, by allowing a legal vent to their feelings.
But it appears, Sir, to be taken for granted, that concession to a people is always more dangerous to public quiet than resistance. Is there any pretence for such a doctrine? I appeal to history, as a vast magazine of facts, all leading to the very opposite conclusion,—teaching that this fatal principle has overthrown more thrones and dismembered more empires than any other—proving that late reformation,—dilatory reformation,—reformation refused at the critical moment,—which may pass for ever,—in the twinkling of an eye, has been the most frequent of all causes of the convulsions which have shaken states, and for a time burst asunder the bonds of society. Allow me very briefly to advert to the earliest revolution of modern times:—was it by concession that Philip II. lost the Netherlands? Had he granted timely and equitable concessions,—had he not plotted the destruction of the ancient privileges of these flourishing provinces, under pretence that all popular privilege was repugnant to just authority, would he not have continued to his death the master of that fair portion of Europe? Did Charles I. lose his throne and his life by concession? Is it not notorious, that if, before losing the confidence of the Parliament and the people (after that loss all his expedients of policy were vain, as in such a case all policy is unavailing), he had adhered to the principles of the Petition of Right, to which he had given his Royal Assent,—if he had forborne from the persecution of the Puritans,—if he had refrained from levying money without a grant from Parliament, he would, in all human probability, have reigned prosperously to the last day of his life. If there be any man who doubts it, his doubts will be easily removed without pursuing his studies farther than the first volume of Lord Clarendon’s History. Did the British Parliament lose North America by concession? Is not the loss of that great empire solely to be ascribed to the obstinate resistance of this House to every conciliatory proposition, although supported by their own greatest men, tendered in the loyal petitions of the Colonies, until they were driven into the arms of France, and the door was for ever closed against all hopes of re-union? Had we yielded to the latest prayers of the Americans, it is hard to say how long the two British nations might have been held together: the separation, at all events, if absolutely necessary, might have been effected on quiet and friendly terms. Whatever may be thought of recent events (of which it is yet too early to firm a final judgment), the history of their origin and progress would of itself be enough to show the wisdom of those early reformations, which, as Mr. Burke says, “are accommodations with a friend in power.”
I feel, Sir, some curiosity to know how many of the high-principled, consistent, inflexible, and hitherto unyielding opponents of this Bill, will continue to refuse to make a declaration in favour of any Reform, till the last moment of this discussion. Although I differ from them very widely in opinion, I know how to estimate their fidelity towards each other, and their general fairness to others, as well as their firmness under circumstances of a discouraging and disheartening nature, calculated to sow distrust and disunion in any political party. What I dread and deprecate in their system is, that they offer no option but Reform or coercion. Let any man seriously consider what is the full import of this last tremendous word. Restrictions will be first laid on the people, which will be assuredly productive of now discontents, provoking in turn an incensed Government to measures still more rigorous. Discontent will rankle into disaffection: disaffection will break out into revolt, which, supposing the most favourable termination, will not be quelled without spilling the blood of our countrymen, and will leave them in the end full of hatred for their rulers, and watching for the favourable opportunity of renewing their attack. It is needless to consider the consequences of a still more disastrous and irreparable termination of the contest. It is enough for me to say, that the long continuance of such wretched scuffles between the Government and the people is absolutely incompatible with the very existence of the English constitution. But although a darkness hangs over the event, is there nothing in the present temper,—in the opinions,—in the circumstances of all European nations, which renders the success of popular principles probable? The mode in which this matter has been argued, will excuse me for once more reminding the House that the question is one of comparative danger. I vote for the present Bill, not only because I approve of it as a measure of Reform, but because I consider it as affording the greatest probability of preserving the integrity of our fundamental laws. Those who shut their eyes on the tempests which are abroad,—on the gloomy silence with which the extreme parties look at each other, may obstinately persist in ascribing the present agitation of mind in Great Britain to a new Cabinet in November, or to a Reform Bill in March.
Our opponents, Sir, deal much in prophecy: they foretell all the evils which will spring from Reform. They do right: such anticipations are not only legitimate arguments; but they form the hinge on which the whole case turns. But they have two sets of weights and measures:—they use the probability of future evil resulting from Reform as their main stay; but when we employ the probability of future evil from No-Reform, in support of our opinion, they call it menace, and charge us with intimidation.
In this, and indeed in every other branch of the case, the arguments of our opponents have so singular a resemblance to those employed by them on the Catholic Question, that we might quote as answers to them their own language. Then, as now, Ministers were charged with yielding to clamour and menace, and with attempting to frighten other men from their independence. As a brief, but conclusive answer, I have only to say, that all policy consists in such considerations as to whether a measure be safe and beneficial,—that every statesman or lawgiver ought to fear what he considers as dangerous to the public,—and that I avow myself a coward at the prospect of the civil disorders which I think impending over my country.
Then, Sir, we are told,—as we were told in the case of the Catholics,—that this measure is not final, and that it is sought only as a vantage ground from which it will be more easy to effect other innovations. I denied the disposition to encroach, with which the Catholics were charged; and however afflicting the condition of Ireland may now be, I appeal to every dispassionate man, whether the relief granted to them has not, on the whole, bettered the situation, and strengthened the security of the country. I was then taught by the Right Honourable Baronet,* that concession would divide loyal from disaffected opponents, and unite all friends of their country against those whose demands were manifestly insatiable. Is it not reasonable to expect some degree of the same benefits on the present occasion?
Nothing human is, in one sense of the word, final. Of a distant futurity I know nothing; and I am, therefore, altogether unfitted to make laws for it. Posterity may rightly measure their own wants, and their capacity,—we cannot; the utmost that we can aspire to, is to remove elements of discord from their path. But within the very limited horizon to which the view of politicians can reach, I have pointed out some reasons why I expect that a measure of concession, made in a spirit of unsuspecting confidence, may inspire the like sentiments, and why I believe that the people will acquiesce in a grant of these extensive privileges to those whose interests must be always the same as their own. After all, is it not obvious that the people already possess that power through their numbers, of which the exercise is dreaded? It is ours, indeed, to decide, whether they are to exert their force in the market-place, in the street, in the field, or in discussion, and debate in this House. If we somewhat increase their legal privileges, we must, also, in the same measure, abate their supposed disposition to use it ill.
On the great proprietors, much of the grace,—of the generous character,—of the conciliatory effect of this measure, must certainly depend. But its success cannot ultimately depend upon a single class. If they be deluded or enraged by tales of intimidation and of riot,—if they can be brought to doubt that there is in the public mind on the necessity of Reform any more doubt than is necessary to show the liberty of publishing opinion,—whenever or wherever they act on these great errors, they may abate the healing efficacy of a great measure of conciliation and improvement; but they cannot prevent its final adoption. Above all other considerations, I advise these great proprietors to cast from them those reasonings which would involve property in the approaching downfall of political abuse. If they assent to the doctrine that political privilege is property, they must be prepared for the inevitable consequence,—that it is no more unlawful to violate their possessions, than to resume a delegated trust. The suppression of dependent boroughs is at hand: it will be the truest wisdom of the natural guardians of the principle of property, to maintain, to inculcate, to enforce the essential distinction between it and political trust,—if they be not desirous to arm the spoilers, whom they dread, with arguments which they can never consistently answer.
[* ] Mr. Fvnes Clinton, M. P. for Aldborough.—Ed.
[* ] Sir John Walsh, who had moved the amendment that the Bill be read that day six months, which Mr. Clinton had seconded.—Ed.
[* ] The insurrection in Poland.—Ed.
[* ] Parl. Hist. vol. xxv. p. 435.—Ed.
[* ] The Reforms proposed by Mr. Flood in 1790, and by Lord Grey in 1797, might have been added to those of Mr. Pitt in 1782, 1783 and 1785.
[* ] For a more detailed reference to the earlier statutory regulations affecting the franchise, see Appendix A.—Ed.
[* ] Knaresborough, the property of the Duke of Devonshire, which he had represented since 1818.—Ed.
[* ] Sir Robert Harry Inglis, Bart.—Ed.
[* ] Sir Charles Wetnerell.—Ed.
[* ] Viscount Ashley.—Ed.
[† ] It would not seem easy to specify the person alluded to.—Ed.
[* ] Sir Robert Peel.—Ed.