§ Lord John Russell
said, that it was now his duty, after a lapse of twelve months, to renew the subject of Parliamentary Reform. Before he entered into the merits of the petitions which crowded the table of the House in favour of that measure, he would beg of the House to consider for one moment the mere number of those petitions, and the claims of the persons by whom they had been signed. In addition to the petitions presented during the last year, there was one lately sent up from the county of York, of which he might fairly say, that the like had never been laid upon the table of the How. In addition to that, petition, signed by no fewer than 17,000 freeholders of the great and populous county of York, there had been meetings in various parts of the country; and among the rest, a most numerous and important one at Edinburgh—all praying, or demanding parliamentary reform. Under these circumstances he felt how difficult it would be for him to treat a cause of such magnitude in a manner suited to its importance. He felt how still more difficult was the task, under the circumstances in which he was placed, of sustaining that cause; the advocate 1261 being, in point of fact, the accuser of those who were his judges, and success to demonstration in making out his case the sure way to attract the condemnation of the body which he addressed. But, besides these difficulties, which belonged at all times to the discussion of the present question, there were others which arose out of the peculiar circumstances of the times. Reform—curious enough—was the question upon which the existing cabinet was united. Differing, as the members of that cabinet did, upon so many points of foreign and domestic policy, they were nevertheless agreed, and fully agreed, upon one point; namely, that their means of government should be by corruption. Again, that right hon. gentleman (Mr. Canning), whose eloquence had given the tone to almost all the speeches uttered in all parts of the country against reform—that very right hon. gentleman now sat in the councils of the Crown, and held the post which was truly, though improperly, called that of manager of the House of Commons. If the elevation, however, of the right hon. gentleman threw some impediment in the way of the question, one consolation was, that it threw additional responsibility upon the right hon. gentleman himself. They all knew, that there was no abuse so vicious—no system so injurious—but talent and ingenuity could find some argument in its favour; and, in truth, it was too much upon such points of forlorn hope, that facility of address delighted to exercise itself. The right hon. gentleman had hitherto spoken speculatively upon the question of reform; and many had given him credit for meaning practically what he said. But the right hon. gentleman now stood in a different situation. He would have to speak in his capacity of manager of the House of Commons: and he would have—which was something more—to act in that capacity. It was the right hon. gentleman who would be compelled, in the event of a general election, to give a peerage to one person, and an office to another—to offer a large reward to the possessor of six scats, a smaller to the holder of three or four; in short, who would be compelled, through the agency of his trusty assistant the secretary of the treasury, to distribute all those promises, honours, and rewards, which were necessary to secure for government a majority among the new representatives. Now, he did congratulate himself, that such a 1262 responsibility would be upon the right hon. gentleman opposite. He did hope, that the right hon. gentleman's feelings would recoil from the execution of such a duty—that he would be disgusted with the practice of governing by such means—that he would deem it beneath him to dirty his hands with work so filthy and abominable; and that, desirous of placing his government upon a foundation more honourable and more secure, he would look only for the support of enlightened people, delivered through the medium of an honest House of parliament.
He should now come, without further preface, to the merits of the question before the House; and he thought he might assume it as a principle, in opening that question, that an assembly framed like the House of Commons to protect the interests of the people from the encroachments of the Crown, and for the various other functions which it was the business of the House of Commons to discharge—that it was necessary that an assembly of such a description should be guarded by every possible means, and, indeed, by some very especial contrivance, from becoming the accomplice of that high influence which it was its immediate duty to check, That was a proposition which would hardly be contradicted by any one and, indeed, it was with a view to the principle with which it was embodied that all the later writers upon the subject of constitutions, and all those who had framed constitutions in modern times, had uniformly endeavoured, by one of two methods—sometimes by both—to secure as far as possible, purity in the representation of the people; the first of those methods—now introduced into the constitution of Spain—being, to exclude from the representation, all persons holding office under the Crown, or connected with the executive government; the second going to a contrivance that the body elected should frequently return into the ranks of the community, and so giving the people an opportunity from time to time of deciding and acting upon the public conduct of their representatives He would not now begin by setting up the proposition, that the House which he was addressing ought to be the real representatives of the people of England. He could find precedents enough, in every page of the Journals, for saying, that the members of the House were sent thither by the people to speak their sentiments. 1263 But in saying this, he was bound to guard himself and his friends from being supposed to argue, or to have ever argued, that the House was bound to be the echo of the popular voice, or to express the opinions of the people, as they arose from day to day. Such might be the opinions of that class of reformers who called for annual parliaments and for universal suffrage; but they were not his opinions, nor those of the persons with whom he acted. All but the advocates of annual parliaments and universal suffrage were inclined so to limit the elective franchise as to confine it to that class of persons who would be capable of appreciating the merits of their representatives, and to extend such a measure of duration to parliaments as should give time to those assemblies to consider well of the measures which might be submitted to them. The people were perhaps better judges of men than of particular measures. Fairly trusted to choose their own representatives, they would not fail to be right in the end. He was no party to the demand of universal suffrage. On the contrary, he thought that every care should be used in the selection of representatives; but he abjured, with all his heart, that contrivance for giving weight to the decisions of the House of Commons, which lay in the majority of its members being chosen by the Crown and by the House of Lords.
They had the authórity of a man who to solid sense added the character of strict integrity—he meant sir James Lowther, the first lord Lonsdale—in reprobation of the system of nominceship. In the strongest manner he had deprecated that innovation, as striking at the root of the constitution, leaving it a House of Commons in name, but an instrument of the Crown in effect. It might be asked, why was not the necessary remedy provided against such an evil by our ancestors? The answer to that objection was, that up to the period of the Revolution, there was no adequate necessity. The great men who took a part in that event felt that they were not called upon to make out a paper constitution. They had for their object to maintain the ancient rights of the people and to redress present grievances, and amongst those grievances, the inadequacy of the representation was not one. Nay, during the last parliament of Charles 2nd, so unexceptionable was the state of the representation, that, during the progress of the Exclusion bill, 1264 when a secretary of state rose to move that that bill should be thrown out, not a member was to be found to second his motion; a circumstance that was not very likely to occur under the existing order of things in that House. But, as the traveller in the fable, after having successfully secured himself against the force of the north wind, was subdued by the mild power of the sun, so did the purity of the House of Commons, which had so long resisted the strong attacks of prerogative, yield to influence. It was not necessary for him, in that place, to give any assurance of the extent of the system of corruption that now existed—it was needless to go into specific statements, to prove the length to which it was now carried, for use what language he might, none were so well acquainted with the infamy and extent of those practices, as the members of that House themselves.
In an early part of the session, when he moved for certain returns, with the view of showing the limited number of those to whom the elective rights were restricted, the right hon. secretary had opposed the motion, because the information was unnecessary. That right hon. gentleman had declared, that numbers could have no weight in the dispute, and that every body granted, as every body knew, that Old Sarum had but one voter—some other place only two—a third three, and so on. Grounding himself; therefore, upon this admission from the right hon. secretary, be would proceed upon some accounts which were already in existence, without staying to consider whether they were precisely correct. From those accounts it appeared, that 290 members of the House of Commons—a considerable majority, upon a list of 513—were returned in England alone, by about 17,000 electors. Those 17,000 were, by no means, the whole of them, independent voters. In many cases, 60 or 70 voters would be found to be absolutely in one hand. But admitting the whole 17,000 to be bonâ fide voters, it would appear that the majority of English members in that House was returned by a body not quite so numerous as the body of freeholders which had recently signed the Yorkshire petition for reform. Now, the simple fact so made out, seemed to him a conclusive case for the House to enter upon an inquiry into the state of the representation.
But, there were other objections taken 1265 to a reform in parliament, which it behoved him to notice before he sat down. Among the first of these objections there was one frequently urged; namely, that although corrupt practices as to election did exist at the present time, yet that practices of the same kind had existed in every period of our history; that in the days of Elizabeth, in the days of Charles, in short, in every age, influence had bad, and of necessity must continue to have, its weight. But he begged, in the first place, to answer that objection by reminding the House, that the question now was, not a question of some corruption, but of a corruption arrived at such a height, as to overwhelm the just and honest influence of the people in that House. And secondly, if he was told that corruption had existed in former times, he answered, that however suitable to former times, it was not suitable to the times present. However the people had been accustomed to submit to the authority of great men in the days of Elizabeth, to the influence of a licentious court in the days of Charles 2nd, or to downright corruption in the days of sir Robert Walrpole—however in times past they had been used to endure corrupt practices, they were now sufficiently enlightened to demand that those practices should no longer exist. He could anticipate part of the line of opposition which would be taken against him. He expected to have old books and old authorities brought up, containing descriptions of election transactions very similar to those of the present day. But such facts, if proved, amounted to no justification whatever. Was it an answer to our being wrong now, to show that our ancestors had been wrong at some former period? Suppose a party of gentlemen to walk out at night with swords, and to wound or kill peaceable persons in on outrage; no doubt such persons, when carried to the nearest police-office, would be capable of producing abundant authority from the comedies of Congreve, or from the essays in the Spectator, that similar practices had existed in the days of our ancestors; but, would any reasonable man say, that they had made out a defence, because they proved that the police of England had been bad, or her system of morals lax, a hundred years before their offence was committed?
There was another objection on which much stress was also laid; namely, that 1266 the people themselves were much more corrupt than the parliament—that whatever might be the faults of the person elected, they were at least quite as honest as the men who elected them. If, for a moment, he could give credit to such a statement, it certainly would be no argument with him to give support to those who benefitted by that corruption; he should, instead of such a course, feel it his duty, under such circumstances, to retire from public life, rejecting, altogether, any communion with that profligacy which he was unable to stem or to defeat. But he was far from acquiescing in such a conclusion—he was satisfied the country was not in that state of corruption which such an objection assumed; and he found that conviction justified by the fact, that wherever the right of election was exercised by a large body of electors, the choice was made on public and disinterested principles. He believed that the electors of Grampound had received almost as much money as the soldiers of Rome had received for selling the empire to Didius; but still he did believe that when the elective franchise was transferred from Grampound to the county of York, the inhabitants of that county would be found to make better use of it. The mere number of the electors would form a strong barrier to the possibility of corruption.
He came next to an attempt which had sometimes been made, to place the advocates of reform in a dilemma. It was said to them, "either restore the constitution to what it was, at some former period, or constitute it anew." He did not feel himself bound by either branch of that dilemma. He did not feel himself bound to point out any period at which the representation of England had been perfect: nor did he feel it incumbent upon him, failing to show such perfection, to originate a new system. What! If he had a house, which was partly ruinous and rotten, and if he sent for an architect to put it into repair, saying to that architect—"Repair me this or that, and add such or such new rooms, for I want them, as my family has increased," was the architect to turn upon him, and to say—"You cannot amend part of your house, though you desire it: you must either restore it to what it was at some former period, or pull it down altogether and build a new one?"
Again, it was contended—and this was 1267 a great argument—that however it might appear that corrupt practices did prevail, however it might seem unjust that so large a portion of members should be returned to that House by so small a portion of the empire, yet, upon the whole, the House did its duty fairly, and was virtually, if not actually, a representation of the people. Now, to this argument he had one answer. There were lists regularly published of the names of the members of the House, with the places by which they were respectively returned, distinguishing those who commonly voted with government, from those who were in the habit of opposing its measures. He had taken, at a hazard, 45 names from those where the return was made by a large population, and 45 from places where the electors were few: and he had found, that of the last 45, 33 supported government, and 12 opposed it; while of the first list, it was supported only by 15 and opposed by the remaining 30. Let the opponents of reform get over that fact as they could. He did not see how the members returned by small bodies could be fairly said to represent the people, when they were found constantly in opposition to the representatives of the large towns. But, as this last argument might not be held sufficient, perhaps it might be worth while, when the House was called a virtual representation of the people, to mention a few cases in which its decisions seemed a little at variance with that position. And first, as an instance of its subserviency to the will of the Crown, he would take its vote upon the Catholic question, in 1812. At that time, Mr. Perceval was minister, a man whose administration was formed on the principles of direct hostility to the claims of the Catholics. Mr. Grattan, no mean advocate, be it recollected, brought forward that question on the 23rd of April in that year, when it was negatived by a majority of 300 to 215. It so happened, that on the lamented death of that minister, who fell by the hand of an assassin in the month of May, a new administration was formed, upon that party-coloured principle which has ever since continued; a principle which made it the duty of one part of the cabinet to excite the Catholics to apply, in order that the other part of the cabinet should shut the door upon their application. In this state of things, the right hon. and learned gentleman opposite (Mr. Plunkett) introduced the 1268 question with a slight difference in form—and, strange to say, though the motion was submitted only two months after the former, namely, on the 22nd June, the opinion of the House was so altered by the recent change in the administration, that 235 members voted for it, and but 106 were opposed to it ! Now, he would ask how it was possible that the majority of that House had received so much information, and become so enlightened in the course of two little months, that they were induced, on pure conviction, to support the motion of the right hon. gentleman relative to the Catholic claims?—Another question to which he would take the liberty to call the attention of the House was connected with the Currency. They all recollected the celebrated resolutions passed in 1811, which solemnly stated, that there was no depreciation; but, at the very time when such a statement was advanced, the salaries of public officers had been increased, on the very ground of a depreciation having taken place. Could this be said to be a calumny? Or, if it were proved, did it not show a great dereliction of principle, that the government should thus take advantage of the depreciation which they solemnly denied? But, the evidence of this was not doubtful. It rested upon an address proposed by the hon. member for Corfe Castle, who, in 1820, had moved for an investigation into the increased salaries of public officers since 1797, the augmentation of which had taken place on the grounds of additional labour and the depreciation of the currency.
But, it might be said by the enemies of reform, that although the House frequently acted against the opinion of the people, yet they acted on the suggestion of a better and more deliberate judgment, and that such a line of conduct was of more national advantage than a more direct and immediate representation of the people in parliament. Now, if that were indeed the case, the resolutions which were passed in that House in a spirit adverse to the feeling of the community at large, would be subsequently hailed as proofs of its wisdom, and the people would bless the decisions which they, upon a hasty view, had opposed. But, was this in reality the case? No, he would affirm it was the direct contrary. For that House, after having passed many bills and many resolutions, which occasioned much irritation, had repeatedly been obliged to retrace 1269 their steps, and come back to the judgment of the people. If instances were wanted, he could refer to the military system of 1816. The people were then convinced, that a much larger military establishment was proposed to be kept up than the necessities of the country required; yet, not a soldier was refused by the votes of the House. It was only after repeated remonstrances, and after great public clamour, that the House consented to a reduction of that vast military force. The noble lord then adverted to other instances of reduction, induced by the repeated complaints and remonstrances of the nation, such as the reduction of the two lords of the Admiralty and the postmasters-general, with the repeal of the salt and other taxes, which were yielded to the landlords long after the diminution of their rents. The House had decided against similar propositions before; and when they did yield, the only potent orator that persuaded them was the increasing discontent of the country.
With regard to the measure which he had now to propose, it was the same at all points with that which he had proposed last year. He wished to have a hundred members added to the representation of the counties and of the populous towns, to be taken from the quota now furnished by the boroughs. But, last year he had omitted, by accident, to state one condition which he now meant to include. This would be the only variance between the motions, and it went towards acknowledging the right of compensation to the boroughs, which, by his proposals, were to be deprived. He believed, for his own part, that it would be perfectly safe, under any view, to transfer the suffrages from one part of the empire to another. At the same time, while he offered that as his opinion, he was quite ready to confess that it was not altogether so consistent with the tenderness which the House might feel for the particular rights of those interested. To meet both views, he would admit, that the persons who now possessed votes in the small boroughs which were to be reduced, should receive compensation for the loss thereby incurred. If any member would come forward with a specific proposition to that effect, he promised him his support. He said more—if any member would submit a proposition in the nature of that suggested once by Mr. Pitt, for the purchase of the small saleable 1270 boroughs, by a sum of the public money to be paid to the burgesses, he was ready to give it his support, provided it should; be made out, that, without any difficulty and with the least possible loss of time, those votes could be made available to the general interests of the country. He contended that it would be wise to apply a portion of the nation's resources in this manner. It would be desirable on the score of prudence, for it was estimated by an able calculator, that no less than twenty millions of the public money had been lavished by one parliament on objects merely wasteful. It would be wise economy to throw away a million in the purchase of boroughs, to secure an honest representation of the people.
There was one topic more to which he would address a few words. It was commonly said by the more moderate opponents of reform, that, allowing that there had always been a prevalence of corruption in the House, allowing that numbers of the members were commonly swayed through undue means by the minister, the voice of the people was yet heard, its influence was felt, and it effected a sufficient counterpoise against the force of corruption. To this he would reply, that the House of Commons, as it was now constituted, had singularly proved itself unable to perform the duties of a house of commons, in the proper sense of, those words; and that he might well apply what had once before been said of it—that instead of being a representation of the people—and a check upon the Crown, it represented the Crown and was a check upon the people. But, what kind of a constitution was this? A House of Commons, in the exercise of its proper functions, wanting, as they were told, the aid of corruption to effect a counterpoise! He would ask, was this the form of government which, under the title of the free British constitution, was held forth to the admiration of the world? Was it really to be considered a sufficient antidote to the evils of a corrupt government, that there was the opinion of an enlightened people condemning every thing which the government did—that there was a power in the nation which at length obtained, by clamour and noise, some reparation for the injuries inflicted on the community? It appeared to him, that such a system, instead of being a wise one, was one of the worst and most absurdly constructed that could possibly exist. Public 1271 opinion was, no doubt, Very strong. It could correct some faults, but the more strong it was—the more exaggerated its power was—the more necessary it was that it should be legally and adequately reprsented—the more it was stated, that the opinion of the people obtained volume and force, the more was the exigency made out for conforming to it the frame and spirit of our institutions. It was in this view that he had last year produced documents to prove the progress of information among the people, and the advance of public opinion. It was then stated, in opposition to that argument, that the progress of information, and the increased instruction of the people, only proved the excellence of the government under which that improvement took place, and that the more newspapers and the other channels of instruction increased, the more clearly was it proved, that the government under which that increase grew up, promoted the freedom and happiness of the people. He was surprised at such an inversion of reasoning in answer to the principle which be then advanced. That principle was borrowed from a celebrated writer, a man of original mind and profound erudition, and one who united learning with wisdom to a degree that had never perhaps been excelled. He alluded to the late Professor Play fair; who had stated, that it was impossible such a convulsion as occurred in France could have happened, if, previously to the Revolution, there had been a conformity between the institutions of the country, and the advanced state of information of that people. Knowledge had been long on the increase in France, and its operation would have favoured the improvement of the country, but its institutions were signally corrupt. A terrible convulsion was the consequence. He stated also, that if a reform had been effected in France, and the government had wisely taken the precaution to adapt its institutions to the state of the public mind, the dreadful scenes which accompanied the revolution would have been averted. In those sentiments he also concurred; and applying them to the subject before the House, he would say, "With you, too, public opinion is strong, but not unruly; your people are enlightened to a degree hitherto unknown upon the face of the earth; but do you suppose that they will be contented with the career of a government which pays no 1272 attention to their entreaties—which they are permitted in no instance to control?" Could it be expected that they would remain satisfied with that state of things wherein the body which should represent them—which the law expressly pointed out as being bound to sympathize with them, and give effect to their reasonable wishes—was directed by quite another kind of influence? Did the House hope to continue such a system? He said, it could not be. The question was no longer, if reform should ever take place: that question had quite gone out of their hands. Whether reform should take place to-day, to-morrow, or at some future time, was a question still left for their decision. They had to inquire, whether reform should advance under the conduct of enlightened statesmen, aided by the counsels of wisdom and prudence, or whether it should take place in the midst of storms and convulsion? That was now the question. And, was there, he would ask, any member of that House, who would not rather be himself the director of that great human improvement than let it come from abroad? What force now remained to be employed against the strength of public opinion? What wise or constitutional measure of parliament was to be produced in opposition to the general wish of the people for a reform? There was nothing to be opposed to the march of public opinion which could stop its career. The great stream of public opinion flowed on, sweeping every thing along with it, and breaking down those landmarks which were once thought immoveable. Let the opponents of reform be aware of its bulk and power; or the peaceful resistance of the stream would become the madness of the torrent. Let the House, then, leave to the despots of the continent to make war upon opinion, and to raise armies for the vain purpose of counteracting the beneficent progress of knowledge and of intellect. Let them do as their ancestors had done. At the period of the Revolution they remedied the evils which the people then felt. Let the House remedy the evils which the people. experienced at the present day. Then, said the noble lord, you will give to your government a stability, and to your constitution a state of security and splendor, which it wily be impossible to overthrow, either by the efforts of tyrants without, or the intrigues of corrupt ministers within.—The noble 1273 lord concluded by moving, "That the present state of the representation of the people in parliament requires the most serious consideration of this House."
said, that in rising to second the motion, he felt some apology to be due to the House. It might have been expected from him, that he would wait until he had heard what arguments were to be opposed to the motion. There was nothing, however, which could lead him to expect any other opposition than that which might be called the stock declamation concerning the alleged wisdom of the constitution, the dangers of sudden change, and such like arguments. There was something new, however, in the condition of the opponents of reform. They must now deal with the question itself, unassisted by adventitious circumstances. They could not be told now, with any degree of plausibility, of the contagion of French principles, or the terrors of radicalism which had been often used to prejudice the fair question. Much less could they be told now, that they were asking for the people what the people did not ask for themselves. The demand for reform was now general; but the tone was moderate. The weapons of the people were the justice of their case, and the determination with which they supported it. They knew the principles of the constitution were admirable; but they were also convinced that the practice was deficient. The opposite side were in the habit of making a charge of wild theories against the advocates of reform. But the charge of theory he retorted upon those who made it. Nothing, indeed, could be more beautiful in theory, than the variety of representation said to be the result of out practical system. But, to suppose the discreet and virtuous exercise of high public functions in a body avowedly corrupt, was the very wildness of theory. He would not weary the House with instances but he could not help asking, why, in the very many questions immediately affecting the public purse, decided by very large majorities in that House, it never happened that the people participated in the advantages of those decisions? It was said, that there was indecorum in questioning its conduct, as it was easy to make charges upon public bodies. But how much easier was the task of defence in such a case; and in this now little difficulty, when the House was counsel party, and judge in the 1274 cause? He invoked their attention to the state of public opinion as evinced the petition from York, and that other petition from Edinburgh. The hon. member for the county of York admitted the respectability of the petitioners, but claimed the privilege of holding his own opinions separately. He was right he happened to have made one in that majority, for whose acts, during the last twenty years, they had now to answer to the public. But were there no other counties which felt as Yorkshire? What said the people of Norfolk? What said the people of Cornwall? Were they so highly benefitted by the immediate neighbourhood of this blessing against which the whole kingdom complained? Their petition would best answer that. They were no better pleased than the people of Edinburgh. And when he considered the state of the representation for Edinburgh, and the very small number of persons by whom the member, however respectable the individual might be, was returned, for so large, so opulent, and so intelligent a city, he could not help thinking it a mockery of representation. From one end of the country to the other, the call was equally loud. Sooner or later reform must be granted. And why not? It was their best shield against foreign aggression; their best antidote to domestic corruption. They must now be conscious that one main object with Abe despots of Europe had, for years, been a conspiracy against the liberties of this country. Let them have that night fresh evidence of the futility of the attempt. Let them behold that House maintaining the right of the English people to be represented in it, and to control the enactment of the national laws. Let them see the object, to them so appalling—the power which can be exerted whenever danger may require it, by a united parliament and a united people.
§ Sir Edward Hyde East,
on rising, desired, that the preamble of the Bill of Rights (Stat. 1. W. and M. s. 2, c. 2.) might be read by the clerk at the tablet which being read, recited, that "Whereas, the lords spiritual and temporal, and the commons, assembled at Westminster, lawfully, fully, and freely representing all the estates of the people of this realm, did, on the lath of February, 1688,deliver a declaration to the prince and princess of Orange," &c. He then argued, that this was an authentic and solemn 1275 declaration of the best patriots of that day; to whom this country was indebted for the free constitution which was then established, and which had been enjoyed ever since the Revolution; that the House of Commons, as then constituted, did not only lawfully, but fully and freely represent the people of England; for they assert, that the Commons then assembled at Westminster, did, with the Lords spiritual and temporal, lawfully, fully, and freely represent all the estates of the people. Let it not be forgotten, that that declaration was drawn up by lord Somers, lord chief justice Treby, and Mr. Pollexfen, men of the highest character for learning, experience, and constitutional principles, and that it was afterwards sanctioned by parliament. Consider also the time when that declaration was made; when all the energies of the people were roused to support the principles of freedom against arbitrary power; when those principles had just prevailed in the struggle, and when the foundations of our present free government were to be laid, in order to secure the victory thus obtained, and the personal safety and property of those who had accomplished it. Surely, if they had not believed, as well as declared, that the House of Commons was a full and free representative of the people, for every essential purpose conducive to a free constitution, they could never have passed by so favourable an opportunity of reforming and re-modelling the representation. To what purpose would they have risked every thing dear to them as men and friends of their country, in resettling the Crown, if they had left a representation, vicious, and inadequate to the security of their own work? Now, the members of the existing House of Commons are still returned from the same places, and by the same bodies, as they were at the time of the Revolution, except so far as the constituent bodies have, in many instances, and the representative body in all, become more popular than formerly; and therefore the just inference is, that the House is still a full and free representative (with the lords) of all the estates of the people. It never was, nor ever was intended to be, a representative of mere numbers; but it was, and is, as much as, or more than ever, a full and fair representative of property, and of the cities, and of most of the large towns and boroughs throughout the kingdom, and of all the different classes of the people. 1276 If this be denied by some in fact; his sufficient to say in answer, that there is opinion against opinion in fact also; and if that fact is to be decided by a mere majority of numbers out of the House, (which would be contrary to all principle and precedent, and nullify the value and security of a representative government once formed, by which a nation agrees to speak only by its representative body), it is fair to observe, that the numbers who have petitioned for a change bear no proportion to those who have not; and that it is notorious that of the former, many have been drawn in to acquiesce, by the influence of party, or by times of peculiar distress and difficulty. But the denial of the fact of inadequacy in the representation rests not merely on counter opinions of individuals, but on much higher authority; upon the repeated declarations of parliament from the time of the Bill of Rights, when our present free constitution was settled, induced, as those declarations have been, by a decided majority of the most eminent statesmen, and of the nobles and gentlemen of England; and resting also upon the tried experience of the country, which, under its present constitution, has exhibited England conspicuous among the nations for its religious and moral feeling, rich in its charities, highly educated and scientific, cultivated like a garden, leading the world in commerce and manufactures, the first naval power, second to none in courage and military prowess. There can be no risk, therefore, in continuing under a constitution which has achieved such results; but there is great risk in altering it, if such alteration is really to lead to important changes in the opinions and conduct of parliament, and the general description of its members; and every sensible and honest man must admit, that no constitution of government ought to be lightly changed, nor unless it be clear, beyond any reasonable doubt, that important benefit will arise from such change. There must always be great hazard in making sweeping changes at once. The principle once admitted, it opens the door to perpetual changes, and paper constitutions, according to the supposed interest or passions of contending parties. If there be any odium on this subject (and none ought to be attached to the honest expression of opinion without intended offence), it should, rather attach on those who seek change, and not on those who support an established 1277 constitution, admitted by all to have worked a considerable portion of good to the country; which has secured to the nation the blessing of general freedom, of justice, and of a government by law; which has originated the Habeas Corpus act, the Bill of Rights, and secured the Protestant Succession of the Crown, and free debate in parliament—But it may be objected, that the declaration alluded to in the Bill of Rights, may have been true at the time, and yet that the representation may have since become imperfect, by subsequent alterations narrowing its original bases, or by an increased population, or by the improved intellect and condition of the people. Now, the reverse of all this is nearer to the truth, in every instance where any alteration has taken place. For, first, every actual alteration has tended to throw weight into the popular scale, whether from legislative or moral causes; as by the extension of the elective franchise, in cases where the smaller boroughs have been convicted of general corrupt practices, either by letting in the freeholders of the adjoining hundreds, or by the removal of the right of election altogether from the offending body to some more important and populous body; the latest instance of which was in the transfer of the elective franchise from Grampound to the county of York. Upon this point, however, it may fairly be doubted, whether it would not have been more in the spirit of the constitution, if the transfer had been made from the disfranchised borough of Grampound, to one of the few large towns of England which remain unrepresented, having grown up in modern times, such as Birmingham, Leeds, or Manchester; to which a charter of incorporation might have been at the same time granted, thereby assimilating this new member of the constitution of parliament to the rest of England, instead of making Yorkshire an exception to other county representations. And I should have felt the more inclined to this substitution, from believing that the originating and principal cause of the feeling as to the defective state of the representation was, the want of local representatives of those few popular and flourishing towns; and that if these were supplied whenever the like opportunities offered, the objection would dwindle into insignificance. An offer of this was understood to have been once made by lord North to Manchester, and declined by 1278 the principal inhabitants, as likely to interfere with the trade of the place: The popular scale has further preponderated, by the great increase in modern times of 40s. freeholders, not only in counties, but in all cities and boroughs where that right of voting exists. This has arisen from the actual increase of wealth, and the relative diminution in the value of money. The like effect has been produced by the moral influence of all the statutes which have been passed for preserving and improving the purity of elections, by more effective laws against bribery and corruption; by the erection of more impartial tribunals for determining contested elections; by the several acts disabling many inferior dependent placemen and pensioners from sitting in the House of Commons; from the act for limiting the duration of parliament to seven years, which was formerly held at the will of the Crown; and though for a short time the experiment of triennial parliaments was made, yet it was not found to succeed, but the limit was fixed as at present, by those who supported the Protestant Succession, and who advocated most strenuously at the time, the free principles of our government. Besides all these acts of the legislature itself, it is notorious, that the increased and increasing knowledge, wealth, and real independence in opinion and action of the great body of gentry and middle classes of the people, out of whom the members are returned, has tended essentially to identify the House of Commons more than ever with the popular feelings of the country at large. The language of party may occasionally deny this for its own purposes, in the struggle of leading men for the possession of political power in the state; but it is plain to all unprejudiced persons, that no administration can now conduct the government of this country, in or out of parliament, unless they are supported by public opinion in general. Above all, however, the established publicity of the debates has tended most powerfully to make the House of Commons a truly popular representative of the people, in every sense consistent with the preservation of our essential form of government, and much more than it was at the time of the Revolution. The powerful effect of this publicity has not been sufficiently appreciated in the discussion of this question. In the judgment of the late Mr. Fox, it was of 1279 more importance than any particular form of representation. "Give the country that publicity," he has said (speaking familiarly), "and an excellent House of Commons might be formed out of the first five hundred gentlemen who happened to pass into St. James's-street on a given day." Only let questions of national policy be debated before the public, and there can be no fear but that the candidates for political power and applause will pay sufficient deference to popular opinions. But it must not be forgotten, also, that one of the great benefits of the representative system is, to guard the people against sudden and violent impulses which may ultimately be injurious to them. In the next place, it is to be considered, that though the numbers of the people have greatly increased since the Revolution, yet there has been a corresponding increase in the number of freeholders in counties, and of voters of the same and other general descriptions in cities and boroughs, admitting of general rights of voting. Where it is otherwise, the general answer has been already given. The representation of England was never intended to be founded on mere numbers, but is of a mixed kind, including property and classes; admitting, therefore, of greater variety of interests than mere numbers would insure, which would rather tend to exclude from Parliament all but the very wealthy or very powerful, with a large admixture of able but violent demagogues. For men of extraordinary talents ever have and ever must make their way into parliament, let it be constituted as it may. Lastly, if it be urged, that the improved intellect and character of the people at large require an improved representation, I answer, that the improvement is already obtained; for the representatives for the time being, cannot be supposed to be less informed than the general body out of whom they are chosen, and of whose general improvement they must partake. On these grounds, I can conscientiously oppose any méasure which leads to a general change in the representation, the benefit of which must be precarious and questionable, while the hazard is great and certain, and the example given for further and greater changes than any now contemplated by the noble and honourable mover of this question.
§ Mr. Ricardo
said, that the arguments of the hon. gentleman who had just sat down had been too often repeated, and 1280 too often refuted, to have any weight with him on the present occasion. He would not admit that conclusions hostile to the cause of reform could be drawn from the practices of past ages; because he denied that the present generation ought to be bound down by all that had been done by their ancestors. He thought the present generation possessed not only as much wisdom as any of those which had preceded it, but a great deal more. The simple question for them to determine was, whether they would not purify the House, when it was notorious that it could not be considered, in the fair sense of the words, to represent the people. He perfectly agreed with all that his noble friend who made the present motion had said, with reference to the state and condition of the House. He concurred with him in every one of his representations; but he did not think the remedy he had prescribed was the most adviseable for the purposes they both wished to accomplish. The question of reform was naturally divided into three considerations. First, the extension of the suffrage; secondly, the mode of election; and thirdly, the duration of parliaments. As to extension of the suffrage, important as he felt that topic to be, and convinced as he was that it ought to be extended much beyond its present limits, still the other two points appeared to him to be of deeper interest. In the arrangement of the suffrages, the whole of the people might be represented, and yet the House might be composed of persons whose elections had been procured by improper means. It was for this reason that he was compelled to dissent from his noble friend's proposal for transferring a portion of the representatives from close boroughs to extensive counties: He thought the whole system of election which prevailed at present was illegal. Of what use was it that the power of choosing its representatives should be given to the people, unless the free exercise of that right were also secured to them? He contended, that so long as the influence of the aristocracy possessed, as it did now, the means of biassing the votes of the people, this House could not be a fair representation of that people. Let it not be supposed, that he wished to deprive the aristocracy of that just influence which it derived from its wealth and respectability; but he thought that it became most pernicious, when it was exercised for the purpose of influencing 1281 elections. Of its practical evil, every person's own knowledge would furnish many and ample proofs. How could it be expected, that a man whose means of procuring a livelihood depended mainly upon the patronage and support of those who were in a more elevated rank—how could it be expected, for instance, that the inferior class of tradesmen—should withstand the threats and terrors which might be put into execution, to prevent them from voting according to their conscience? To look for this would be to call upon small freeholders for a degree of severe virtue which had no corresponding example in the higher ranks of society. There was but one method of obviating these difficulties; which was by altering the mode of election, and adopting the ballot instead of open votes. If this were done, they would have a house of commons which would fairly represent the people.—The other point which he wished to mention to the House was the necessity of more frequent election. And this he thought was indisputable; because it was the ready means of ensuring the attention of the House uniformly to the interests of the people.—There was another point in which he must dissent from the opinion of his noble friend. His noble friend had argued that in the event of any parliamentary reform, the House ought to take into their consideration what were called the vested rights of individuals in boroughs. Now, this really appeared to him to be a most extraordinary proposition. Could those pretended rights be considered in the light of property? Could any thing be more contrary to justice than to propose any compensation for such assumed property? Had not the people a right to be well governed? And was it to be maintained, that, because a certain set of persons had, for corrupt purposes, enjoyed the privilege for many years of preventing the people from being well governed, they should, therefore, be compensated for the loss of a privilege so unjustifiable.—The right honourable secretary (Mr. Canning) had, upon a former occasion, stated, that if the House of Commons should fairly represent the people, it would become too powerful for the safety of the Crown and the House of Lords. This argument, he (Mr. R.) contended, did not belong to the question; for it was impossible that a House of Commons fairly constituted should not consult their own interests. If, therefore, such a 1282 House should propose to dismiss the Crown and the House of Lords, it would be because they were unnecessary to the good government of the country. The right hon. gentleman must, therefore, abandon this argument, or confess, that a virtuous House of Commons would be driven to dismiss the Crown and the House of Lords.—It had also been contended, that if the general principle of his noble friend's motion were acceded to, a hundred different plans of reform would start up, and that it would be impossible to secure any thing like unanimity on the subject. That was not his opinion. He, for one, was for no alteration in the constitution of the House of Commons, unless that alteration should render it fully and fairly a representation of the people; and he was convinced that that was the object which all the friends of parliamentary reform had in view. The only difference between his noble friend and himself was, that he did not think the plan proposed by his noble friend would accomplish that object. He believed that if that plan were adopted, the House would continue to be what it now was—the representative of the aristocracy of the country, and of the aristocracy only. County elections were, in his opinion, conducted on no better principles than borough elections; and he repeated his conviction, that unless the system of ballot were resorted to, it would be in vain to attempt any reform at all of parliament.—The right hon. secretary opposite had argued, when the question was last under consideration, that the House of Commons, as at present constituted, operated as a check upon the Crown, and a balance of the power of the other House of Parliament. That he denied. To make such a proposition good, it must be first shown that the House of Commons fairly represented the people; otherwise, it was a farce and a mockery to say, that it operated as a check upon the Crown and a balance of the power of the other House of Parliament. His opinion was, that at present the government of this country was a compromise between the aristocracy and the Crown. Instead of the House of Commons, as at present constituted, being a check upon the people, it was itself frequently checked by public opinion. But, was that a convenient operation? Was it convenient that county and other public meetings should perpetually be called, for the purpose of afford- 1283 ing a check to the proceedings of the House of Commons? Would it not be much better that the House should really represent the people—that it should be the organ of public opinion?—The right hon. gentleman, on the occasion to which he had already alluded, had triumphantly asked, to what period of our history the reformers would refer as affording the best view of the state of the house of Commons: For himself, he would answer, to none. He believed the people never had been better represented. But, were we never to have a good House of Commons, because we never had had a good one? The people at large now possessed so much more information than they ever before possessed, that they were entitled to be better represented in parliament than they had ever before been.—The right hon. gentleman opposite had allowed, that the proposition might be a beneficial one, but that it was not the constitution under which we were born. The same argument might be used to perpetuate every abuse and every evil. It might be said with respect to Ireland, was the present state of things to be continued in Ireland, because it was the constitution under which time Irish were born? To hear the right hon. gentleman, it would be supposed that the friends of reform were proposing the establishment of a republic. But that was a gratuitous assumption: it was his conclusion, not theirs. The demands of the people might be easily satisfied. They asked only for that which was perfectly reasonable—that they might have a voice in the public councils, and the power of restraining the expenditure of their own money.—He by no means denied the assertion of the right hon. gentleman, that the aggregate of the House of Commons contained as much intellectual ability and moral integrity as ever existed in any similar assembly in the whole world. But then it must be recollected, that all men, in all situations, acted under the influence of motives. He was persuaded that the conduct of the very same gentlemen by whom he was then surrounded, if they were really chosen by the people, and were frequently returned to the people that their merits be re-considered, would be extremely different from that which it was at present. Mr. Pitt, when he was the friend of parliamentary reform, had said, that it was impossible for an honest man to be minister of this country with such a 1284 House of Commons. He was also of that opinion. He did not say, that the ministers did not mean to act honestly; but they were obliged to consult men, and to pursue measures, opposed to the interests of the people. However they might be inclined, they could not do otherwise; feeling that owing to the peculiar constitution of the House, they would be turned out in a week if they should venture to act honestly. That the people were competent to the task of electing their representatives, the experience of this and of every other country conclusively showed. The enlightened Montesquieu had said, "Could we doubt the natural capacity of the people to discern real merit, it would only be necessary to cast our eyes upon the continued series of surprising elections which were made by the Athenians and the Romans, which undoubtedly no one could attribute to hazard. It is well known that although at Rome the people possessed the right of electing the plebeians to public offices, they never chose to exercise that power; and that although at Athens, by the law of Aristides, they were allowed to select the magistrates from every rank of the state, yet the common people, says. Xenophon, never petitioned for such employment as could possibly interfere with their safety or their glory." These instances might serve to show, that instead of selecting demagogues and disturbers of the public peace, as was unjustly apprehended, the people, if left to the unrestricted exercise of their choice, would act wisely and prudently.
, of Galway, said, that the arguments in favour of parliamentary reform were reduced to this—that the House of Commons did not sympathise with the people. Now, he was persuaded that the House did sympathise with the people, as much as it ought to sympathise with them. He by no means intended to deny that a great majority of the people were for reform. Certainly, no system of reform was such a favourite with them as the radical system of such men as Cobbett. But was the House prepared to acquiesce in such preference? So far from thinking that the House did not sympathise with the people, he contended that there never was a grievance which they did not go as far as they ought to redress. Before he pledged himself to support a motion of this kind, he should like, as he entertained some doubts upon 1285 the subject, to see an experiment, upon a small scale, of the effect of reform. The borough of Knaresborough, or that of Tavistock, would furnish the means for this experiment, which would show what results might be expected from reform The noble mover and some of his friends might have an interest in the boroughs he had mentioned: and if they would try the effect of reform upon them, they should have his cordial support. When the hon. gentlemen had given this pledge of their sincerity, the House might be induced to go further. The hon. member for Portarlington had talked gravely about the influence of the aristocracy. Now, he did not think the hon. gentleman could name one of the constituents by whom he was returned. They were about twelve in number, and he did not recollect that he had ever set foot in Ireland. The hon. gentleman had, therefore, he presumed, been indebted to that influence, or to some equivalent one, for his scat for Portarlington. He felt obliged to oppose the present motion; but as he had said, if reform were to be tried upon a smaller scale, he would cordially support it.
§ Sir J. Newport
rose to support the motion, and said, that the people of Ireland did not complain on this subject, because they had no reason, the representation of that country being as purely popular as it could be. He mentioned a conversation which he had had with the late Mr. Windham, not more than a week before the occurrence of that calamity which had terminated his valuable life. When, in answer to an apprehension which that right hon. gentleman had expressed, that the power of the Crown might be endangered by popular elections, he (sir J. N.) had adduced the example of Ireland, and asked if the Crown had not sufficient power there? That eminent man confessed that his opinion was more deeply shaken by this line of argument than by any other; because it was obvious that in that country the Crown had as much power as it ought to possess. The hon. gentleman who had just sat down seemed to throw it out as an imputation upon the sincerity of his hon. friend, that he sat in the House by virtue of a return under that system which he deprecated. He (sir J. N.) took it, on the contrary, to be as great a proof as could be given of the independence and integrity of his hon. friend's mind, that he had not hesi- 1286 tated to oppose that system, although he had been so returned. He (sir J. N.) had once been of opinion, that to punish occasionally any gross case of delinquency that might occur, would be sufficient for the purposes of reform. But further experience had made him alter that opinion, for he had witnessed from time to time, instances of notorious political vacillation, arising solely from a change in the ministry. That was a state of things that ought to be avoided; for he wished to remove the impression from the minds of the people, that it was not the sense of the House which operated for their advantage or disadvantage, but the influence of the minister.
Sir T. Lethbridge
said, that although his sentiments on this subject had materially changed, still he was convinced that the circumstances of the country had afforded ample grounds to justify such an alteration. He apprehended that if the motion of the noble lord were carried, it would have the necessary effect of bringing into the House, through the medium of county representation, a different class (he did not apply the term invidiously) of persons to those who now composed it. This was one ground which induced him to call for a change in the representation. He also thought, that by taking the subject into their own hands, they would discourage those absurd and visionary doctrines which were held out to the country by specious and designing characters, both in secret societies and where large multitudes were assembled out of doors. He would put an extinguisher on such actions societies; and he knew of no way so effectual for that object as by laving the question taken up in that House by men of high character. The history of this country was a continued chain of reform. The constitution contained within itself the seeds of regeneration, which had probably been the reason of its enduring for so many ages. These were partly the grounds on which to gave his vote that evening.
§ Sir F. Blake
said, that reform was raining ground year after year. In referring to the hon. member who had had he preamble of the Bill of Rights read it the table for the edification of the House, he would ask that hon. member if he recollected, notwithstanding the first paragraph of that bill stated the House of Commons faithfully to represent the people, what was the opinion of 1287 William 3rd with regard to that very House of Commons? That monarch had said to the earl of Sunderland, on the proposition to send home his Dutch guards, "Had I as many places to bestow as there are members in the House of Commons, I should not have my will disputed." Sir Robert Walpole had said, that "every man had his price;" and lord Colchester, when lately presiding in that House, on the discussion of the case relative to the barter of a scat for a writership in India, had solemnly declared that seat-selling in that House "was as notorious as the sun at noon-day," which observation was so thoroughly consonant with the feelings of the country, that the phrase had become almost proverbial. On these occasions, when gentlemen got up to talk about the purity of parliament, he could only answer them by an allusion to what was said to Norfolk in Richard's time—"Jockey of Norfolk, be not too bold; for Dickon, thy master, is bought and sold." He had observed on the conduct of former Rouses pretty strongly, but he was not permitted to speak any thing in dispraise of the present. He could say nothing in its favour, and therefore he would leave its Character to be defined by posterity. He agreed that it was more advisable that a reform should originate with the House itself, than that the people should be obliged to take the remedy into their own hands; which they would be justified in doing, if birth-right, a free representation, was withheld from them. It mattered not how long it had been delayed. Such considerations did not operate when the interests of the king and the clergy were involved. He hoped, therefore, that by their vote of that night, the House would adhere to the old maxim—"Nullum tempos occurrit regi aut ecclesiæ," adding the two little words "aut populo."
§ The House divided: Ayes, 169; Noes, 280. Majority against the motion, 111.
|List of the Minority.|
|Abercromby, hon. J.||Bennet, hon. H. G.|
|Allan, J. H.||Bentinck, lord W.|
|Althorp, visc.||Benyon, B.|
|Anson, hon. G.||Bernal, Ralph|
|Anson, Sir G.||Birch, J.|
|Baring, A.||Blake, sir F.|
|Baring, sir T.||Boughey, sir J.|
|Barnard, visc.||Brougham, H.|
|Barratt, S. M.||Browne, Dom.|
|Becher, W. W.||Burdett, sir F.|
|Benett, John||Butterworth, J.|
|Byng, G.||Lennard, T. B.|
|Calcraft, J.||Lester, B.|
|Calcraft, J. W.||Lethbridge, sir T.|
|Calthorpe, hon. F.||Leycester, R.|
|Calvert, N.||Lloyd, sir E. P.|
|Campbell, hon. G. P.||Maberly, J.|
|Carew, R.||Maberly, W. L.|
|Carter, J.||Mackintosh, sir J.|
|Caulfield, hon. H.||Mahon, hon. S.|
|Cavendish, lord G.||Marjoribanks, S.|
|Cavendish, H.||Marryatt, J.|
|Chamberlayne, W.||Martin, J.|
|Chaloner, R.||Maxwell, John|
|Clifton, visc.||Milbank, M.|
|Coffin, Sir I.||Milton, visc.|
|Coke, T. W.||Monck, J. B.|
|Colborne, N. R.||Moore, Peter|
|Creevey, T.||Neville, hon. R.|
|Crompton, S.||Newman, R. W.|
|Cradock, S.||Newport, sir J.|
|Curwen, J. C.||Normanby, visc.|
|Davies, T. H.||Nugent, lord|
|De Crespigny, sir W.||O'Callaghan, J.|
|Denison, W. J.||Ord, W,|
|Denman, T.||Osborne, lord F. G.|
|Dickinson, W.||Palmer, C.|
|Duncannon, visc.||Palmer, C. F.|
|Dundas, C.||Pares, T.|
|Ebrington, visc.||Parnell, sir H.|
|Ellice, E.||Peirse, H.|
|Ellis, hon. G. A.||Pelham, hon. C. A.|
|Evans, W.||Pelham, J. C.|
|Farquharson, A.||Philips, G. sen.|
|Farrand, R.||Philips, G.|
|Fitzroy, lord J.||Power, R.|
|Fergusson, sir R. C.||Powlett, hon. W.|
|Folkeston, visc.||Price, R.|
|Fitzgibbon, hon. R.||Prittie, hon. F. A.|
|Glenorchy, visc.||Poyntz, W. S.|
|Grant, J. P.||Pym, F.|
|Grattan, J.||Portman, E. B.|
|Grossest, J.||Ramsden, J. C.|
|Guise, sir W.||Rickford, W.|
|Haldimand, W.||Robarts, A.|
|Hamilton, lord A.||Robarts, G.|
|Heathcote, sir G.||Robinson, sir G.|
|Heathcote, G. J.||Rowley, sir W.|
|Heron, sir R.||Rumbold, C.|
|Hill, lord A.||Russell, lord G. W.|
|Hobhouse, J. C.||Russell, R. G.|
|Honywood, W. P.||Russell, W.|
|Hornby, E.||Scarlett, J.|
|Howard, lord H. M.||Scott, J.|
|Hume, J.||Smith, W.|
|Hurst, R.||Smith, J.|
|Hutchinson, hon. C. H.||Smith, hon. R.|
|James, W.||Stanley, lord|
|Jervoise, G. P.||Stanley, hon. E.|
|Kennedy, T. F.||Stewart, W. (Tyrone)|
|Knight, R.||Stuart, lord J.|
|Lamb, hon. G.||Sykes, D.|
|Lambton, J. G.||Talbot, R. W.|
|Langston, J. H.||Tennyson, C.|
|Latouche, R.||Tierney, right hon. G.|
|Lawley, F.||Titchfield, marq.|
|Leader, W.||Townshend, lord C.|
|Lemon, sir W.||Tynte, C. R.|
|Warre, J. A.||Wood, M.|
|Webbe, E.||Wyvill, M.|
|Whitbread, S. C.||Russell, lord J.|
|Whitbread, W. H.||Ricardo, D.|
|White, colonel||PAIRED OFF.|
|Whitmore, W. W.||Lloyd, J. M.|
|Wilberforce, W.||Markham, admiral|
|Williams, J.||Tavistock, marq. of|
|Williams, sir R.||White, L.|
|Williams, W.||SHUT OUT.|
|Wininngton, sir T.||Kemp, T.|