From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia
THAT the British Constitution is relatively good is satisfactorily indicated by its effects. Without indulging in the ordinary gratulations of our “own country being the first country in the world,” it is unquestionably, in almost every respect, among the first,—among the first in liberty, in intellectual and moral excellence, and in whatever dignifies and adorns mankind. A country which thus surpasses other nations, and which has, with little interruption, possessed a nearly uniform constitution for ages, may well rest assured that its constitution is good. To say that it is good is however very different from saying that it is theoretically perfect, or practically as good as its theory will allow. Under a king, lords, and commons, we have prospered; but it does not therefore follow that under a king, lords, and commons, we might not have prospered more.
Whatever may be the future allotment of our country as to the form of its government, whether at any period, or at what, the progressive advancement of the human species will occasion an alteration, we are not at present concerned to inquire. Of one thing, indeed, we may be assured, that if it should be the good pleasure of Providence that this advancement in excellence shall take place, the practical principles of the government and its constitutional form, will be gradually moulded and modified into a state of adaptation to the then condition of mankind.
I. Of the regal part of the British Constitution I would say little. The sovereign is, in a great degree, identified with an administration; and into the principles which should regulate ministerial conduct the preceding chapters have attempted some inquiry.
Yet it may be observed, that supposing ministerial influence to be “necessary” to the constitution, there appears considerable reason to think that its amount may be safely and rightly diminished. As this influence becomes needless in proportion to the actual rectitude of political measures; as there is some reason to hope that this rectitude is increasing; and as the public capacity to judge soundly of political measures is manifestly increasing also; it is probable that some portion of the influence of the crown might be given up, without any danger to the constitution or the public weal. And, waiving all reference to the essential moral character of influence, it is to be remembered, that no degree of it is defensible, even by the politician, but that which apparently subserves the reasonable purposes of government.
It is recorded that in 1741, in Scotland, “sixteen peers were chosen literally according to the list transmitted from court.”1 Such a fact would convince a man, without further inquiry, that there must hue been something very unsound in the ministerial politics of the day; or, at any rate (which is nearly the same thing), something very discordant with the general mind.
In 1793, and while, of course, the Irish parliament existed, a bill was brought into that parliament to repeal some of the Catholic disabilities. This bill, the “parliament loudly, indignantly, and resolutely rejected.” A few months afterward, a similar bill was introduced under the auspices of the government. Pitt had taken counsel of Burke, and wished to grant the Catholics relief: and when the viceroy’s secretary accordingly brought in a bill, two members only opposed it; and at the second reading it was opposed but by one vote. Now, whatever may be said of the “necessity” of ministerial influence for the purposes of state, nothing can be said in favour of such influence as this. Every argument which would show its expediency would show even more powerfully the impurity of the system which could require it.
It is common to hear complaints of ministerial influence in parliament.—“That kind of influence which the noble lord alludes to,” said Fox, in one of his speeches, “I shall ever deem unconstitutional; for by the influence of the crown, he means the influence of the crown in parliament.”2 But if it is concluded that influence is “necessary,” it seems idle to complain of its exercise in the senate. Where should it be exerted with effect? Whether it be constitutional it is difficult to say, because it is difficult to define where constitutional acts end and unconstitutional acts begin. But it may safely be concluded that, in such matters, questions of constitutional rectitude are little relevant. Influence, you say and in a certain sense you say it truly is necessary. To what purpose then can it be to complain of the exercise of that influence in those place in which only or principally it is effectual? It would be impossible for persons, with our views of political rectitude, to execute the office of minister upon any system that approached, in its character, to the present; but were it otherwise, I would advise a minister openly to avow the exorcise of influence, and to defend it. This were the frank and, I think, the rational course. Why should a man affect secrecy or concealment about an act “politically necessary.” I would not talk about disinterestedness and independence; but tell the world that influence was needful, and that I exerted it. Not that such an avowal would stop, or ought to stop, the complaints of virtuous men. The morality of politics is not so obscure but that thousands will always perceive that the exertion of influence, and the submission to it, is morally vicious. This conflict will continue. Artifice and deception are “necessary” to a swindler, but all honest men know and feel that the artifice and deception are wrong.
II. It appears to have been discovered, or assumed, in most free states, that it is expedient that there should be two deliberative assemblies, of which one shall, from its constitution, possess less of a democratical tendency than the other. Not that, in a purer state of society, two such assemblies would be necessary, but because, while separate individuals or separate classes of men pursue their peculiar interests and are swayed by their peculiar prejudices, it is found needful to obstruct one class of interests and tendencies by another. Such a purpose is answered by the British House of Lords.
The privileges of the members of this house are such as to offer considerable temptation to their political virtue. A body of men whose eminence consists in artificial distinctions between them and the rest of the community are likely to desire to make these distinctions needlessly great; and for that purpose to postpone the public welfare to the interests of an order. We all know that there is a collective as 1well as an individual ambition. It is a truth which a peer should habitually inculcate upon himself, that however rank and title may be conferred for the gratification of the possessor, the legislative privileges of a peer are to be held exclusively subservient to the general good. I use the word exclusively in its strictest sense: so that, if even the question should come, whether any part or the whole of the privileges of the peerage should be withdrawn or the general good should be sacrificed, I should say that no reasonable question could exist respecting the proper alternative. Were I a peer, I should not think myself at liberty to urge the privileges of my order in opposition to the public weal; for this were evidently to postpone the greater interests to the less. If rulers of all kinds, if civil government itself, are simply the officers of the nation, surely no one class of rulers is at liberty to put its pretensions in opposition to the national advantage.
The love of title and of rank constitutes one of the great temptations of the political man. He can obtain them only from the crown; and it is not usual to bestow them except upon those who support the administration of the day. The intensity of the desire which some men feel for these distinctions has a correspondently intense effect. Lord Chatham said “that he had known men of great ambition for power and dominion, many whose characters were tarnished by glaring defects, some with many vices,—who nevertheless could be prevailed upon to join in the best public measures; but the moment he found any man who had set himself down as a candidate for a peerage, he despaired of his ever being a friend to his country.3—This displays a curious political phenomenon. Can the reader give a better solution than the supposition that, in the love itself of title, there is something little and low, and that the minds which can be so anxious for it are commonly too little and too low to sacrifice their hopes to friendship for their country?—Many who are not candidates for peerages nevertheless look upon them with a wishing eye; and some who have attained to the lower honours of the order are equally solicitous for advancement to the higher. So that even upon those on whom the temptation is not so powerful as that of which Chatham speaks—some temptation is laid; a temptation of which it were idle to dispute that the aggregate effect is great.
If, without reference to the existing state of Britain, a man should ask whether the legislators of a nation ought to be subjected to such temptation,—whether it were a judicious political institution, I should answer, No: because I should judge that a legislative assembly ought to have no inducements or motives foreign to the general good. This appears to be so obviously true that the necessity, if there be a necessity, for an assembly so constituted, only evinces how imperfect the political character of a people is. There would be no need for having recourse to an objectionable species of assembly, if it were not wanted to counteract or to effect purposes which a purely constituted assembly could not attain.
In estimating the relative worthiness of objects of human pursuit, a peerage does not appear to rank high. I know not indeed how it happens that men contemplate it with so much complacency; and that so few are found who appear to doubt whether it is one of the most reasonable and worthy objects of desire. A title! Only think what a title is, and what it is not. It is a thing which philosophy may reasonably hold cheap; a thing which partakes of the character of the tinsel watch, for which the new-breeched urchin looks with anxious eyes, and by which, when he has got it, he thinks he is made a greater man than before. If such be the character of title when brought into comparison with the dignity of man, what is it when it is compared with the dignity of the Christian? Nothing. It may be affirmed, without any apprehension of error, that the greater the degree in which any man is a Christian, the less will be his wish to be called a lord; and that when he attains to the “fulness of the stature” of a Christian man, no wish will remain.—If additional motives can be urged to reduce our ambition of title, some perhaps may be found in considering the grow1ds upon which it has too frequently been conferred. Queen Anne, when once the ministry could not carry a measure in the Upper House, made twelve new peers at once. These, of course, voted for the measure. What honourable and elevated mind would have purchased one of these titles at the expense of the caustic question which a member put when they were going to give their first vote,—“Are you going to vote by your foreman?”
Whether the heads of a Christian church should possess seats in the legislature is a question that has often been discussed.—If a Christian bishop can attend to legislative affairs without infringing upon the time and attention which is due to his peculiar office, there appears nothing in that office which disqualifies him for legislative functions. The better a man is, the more, as a general rule, be is fit for a legislator; so that, assuming that bishops are peculiarly Christian men, it is not unfit that they should assist in the councils of the nation. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that there is no peculiar congruity between the office of the Christian overseer and that of an agent in political affairs. They are not incompatible indeed, but the connexion is not natural. Politics do not form the proper business of a Christian shepherd. They are wholly foreign to his proper business; and that retirement from the things of the world which Christianity requires of her ministers, and which she must be supposed peculiarly to require of her more elevated ministers, indicates the propriety of meddling but little in affairs of state. But, when it comes to be proposed that all the heads of a Christian church shall be selected for legislators, because they are heads of the church, the impropriety becomes manifest and great. To make a high religious office the qualification for a political office is manifestly wrong. It may be found now and then that a good bishop is tit for a useful legislator, but because you have elevated a man to a more onerous and responsible office in the church, forthwith to superadd an onerous and responsible office in the state, is surely not to consult the dictates of Christianity or of reason. Nor is it rational or Christian forthwith to add a temporal peerage. If there be any one thing, not absolutely vicious, which is incongruous with the proper temper and character of an exalted shepherd of the flock, it is temporal splendour. Such splendour accords very well with the political character of the Romish church,—but with Protestantism, with Christianity, it has no accordance. The splendours of title are utterly dissimilar in their character to the character of the heads of the church, as that character is indicated in the New Testament. How preposterous is the association in idea of “My lord” with a Paul or a Barnabas?—The truth indeed is, that this species of fornication did not originate in religion, nor in religious motives. It sprang up with the corruptions of the papacy; and in this, as in some other instances, we, who have purified the vicious doctrine, have clung to the vicious practice.
To these considerations is to be added another: that the extent of jurisdiction which is assigned to the bishops of this country is such as to occupy, if the office be rightly executed, a large portion of a bishop’s time,—a portion so large, that if he be exemplary as a bishop, he can hardly be exemplary as a legislator. If, as will perhaps be admitted, the diligent and conscientious pastor of an ordinary parish has a sufficient employment for his time, it cannot be supposed that a bishop has less. He who presides over hundreds of parishes and hundreds of pastors, and rightly presides over them, can surely find little time for attendance in the senate; especially when that attendance takes him, as it necessarily does, far away from the inferior shepherds and from the flocks.
But when it comes to be considered that our bishops are the heads of an established church, we are presented with a very different field of inquiry. That which is not congruous with Christianity may be congruous with a religious establishment. Nor, in a religious establishment like that which obtains in England, would there perhaps be any propriety in dismissing bishops from the House of Lords. They have to watch over other interests than those of religion,—political interests; and where shall they efficiently watch over them if they have no voice in political affairs! Bishops in this country have not merely to “feed the flock of God which is among them,” but to take care that that flock and their shepherds retain their privileges and their supremacy: so that if I were asked whether bishops ought to have a seat in the legislature, I should answer,—if you mean by a bishop a head of a Christian church, he has other and better business:—if by a bishop you mean the head of an established church, the question must be determined by the question of the rectitude of an established church itself.
Without stopping to decide this question, it may be observed, that some serious mischiefs result from the institution as it exists. A bishop should be not only of unimpeachable, but, as far as may be, of untempted virtue. His office as a peer subjects him to great temptations. Bishops are more dependent upon the crown than any other class of peers, because vacancies for elevation in the church are continually occurring; and for these vacancies a bishop hopes. Since he cannot generally expect to obtain them by an opposition, however conscientious, to the minister of the day, he is placed m a situation which no good man ought to desire for himself; that of a powerful temptation to sacrifice his integrity to his interests, How frequently or how far that temptation prevails, I presume not to determine; but it is plain, whatever be the cause, that the minister can count upon the support of the bishops more confidently than upon any other class of peers. This is not the experience of one minister, or of two; but, in general language, of all History states, informally, and as an unquestioned circumstance, that “from the bench of bishops the court usually expects the greatest complaisance and submission.”4 I perceive nothing in the nature of the Christian office to induce this support of the minister of the day. I do not see why a Christian, pastor should do this rather than a legislator of another station: for it will hardly be contended that there is so much goodness and purity in ministerial transactions, that a Christian pastor must support them because they are so pure and so good. What conclusion then remains, but that temptation is presented, and that it prevails? That this, simply regarded, is an evil, no man can doubt; but let him remember that the evil is not necessarily incidental even to the legislating bishop. There may be bishops without solicitude for translations, for there may be a church without dependence on the crown, or connexion with the state. While this connexion and this dependence remain, I do not say that ecclesiastical peers cannot be exempt from unworthy influence, but there is no hope of exemption in the present condition of mankind.
The system which obtains in the House of Lords of accepting proxies in divisions appears strangely inconsistent with propriety and reason. It intimates utter contempt of the debates of the house; because it virtually declares that the arguments of the speakers are of no weight or concern. Who can tell or who ought to tell, when he gives his proxy to another, whether the discussion might not alter his views, and make him vote on the other side? Proxies are congruous enough with a system of legislation which is conducted upon maxims of interest and party—but if we suppose legislation to proceed upon evidence and reasoning, they are a preposterous mockery of common sense.
The number of peers has rapidly increased. This may be a subject of regret to the peerage itself, because every addition to its number may be regarded as a reduction from the dignity of each. The dignity is relative, and consists in the distinction between them and other men; which distinction becomes less as peers become common. As the peerage is progressively increased in number, a lord will be progressively reduced in practical rank. The title remains the same, but the actual distinction between him and other men is waning away. But, though this may cause regret to a peer, it ought to cause none to the man of reason or the patriot. As to reason, if our estimates of title be accurate, its distinctions are sufficiently vain: and as to patriotism, if our country is increasing in knowledge and in excellence, it is increasing in its ability to direct its own policy, without the intervention of an order of peers. So that, supposing the cessation of that order to be hereafter desirable, the patriot may hope that its distinctions will be yielded up to the general weal more willingly when they have become insignificant by diffusion, than if they were great by being possessed but by a few.
In reflecting then upon the political character of the House of Lords, it is to be remembered that its utility appears to be conditional,—conditional upon the state of the community. It may be needed to check intemperate measures, to restrain, for instance, the vicious encroachments of democracy; but it is not needed in any other sense. It is like the physician’s prescription or the surgeon’s knife,—useful in an unhealthy state of the social body, but useless if it were sound. The reader will say that this is strong language; and so it is: but he has no reason to complain if it is the language of truth; and that it is true, he may perhaps be convinced by authority, upon such n subject, less questionable than mine. “Were the voice of the people always dictated by reflection; did every man, or even one man in a hundred, think for himself, or actually consider the measure he was about to approve or censure, or even were the common people tolerably steadfast in the judgment which they formed, I should hold the interference of a superior order not only superfluous, but wrong.”5
III. The House of Commons is, constitutionally, the representative of the people; and the degree in which it fulfils this its constitutional office is to be estimated by the degree in which the public wish is actually represented by its members. “It is essential to the happiness of the people that they should be convinced that they, and the members of this house, feel an identity of interest; that the nation at large and the representatives of the people hold a conformity of sentiment. This is the essence of a proper representative assembly.”6 It is not necessary to the just fulfilment of this office that every measure which a majority of the people desire should be adopted by the House; because its members are often better able to judge what is good for the majority, than they are themselves; and because, sometimes, popular opinions are not, I think, capricious, but fluctuating and unreasonably vehement. There was a time when the populace were in tumult and almost in insurrection, because the legislature had erected turnpikes; but if three-fourths of the population of the country had joined in the outcry, it would not have been a good reason for repealing the act. But if the public wish is not always to be gratified by the House of Commons, it is always to be expressed within its walls. The House should know what the people desire, though they are at liberty, if they think it needful, to reject that desire. This, it is obvious, is a right which the people may claim of the republican part of the constitution. It were neither decorous nor wise to show even impatience at the respectful petitions of the people: not decorous, for it implies forgetfulness that the House is the servant of the public; not wise, for a candid attention to the public representations, even when they are not acted upon, is one of the surest means of conciliating the esteem, and of administering to the satisfaction of the community.
In estimating the extent to which the decisions of the House of Commons ought actually to correspond with the public wishes, no narrow limits should be prescribed. It is here, if anywhere, that the people are to be heard. Both the other branches of the constitution tend naturally to their separate and privileged interests: so that if in the senate of a republican government the people ought to be represented, much more emphatically ought they to be represented by the commons in a government like our own.
The most accurate test of the degree in which the British House of Commons fulfils this its primary office is to be sought in the deliberate judgments of reasonable and thinking men; not of party men, or interested men,—but of the temperate and the good. Now there is reason to think that, in the judgments of this portion of the community, there is not a just and sufficient identity between the public voice and the measures of this House.
But, supposing the practical representation to be defective, how is the defect to be repaired? A question this of far less easy solution than some politicians would persuade us. Not frequency of parliaments, not extensions of the franchise,—not altering the modes of election will be sufficient. The evil is seated, primarily and essentially, in the impure condition, in the imperfect virtue of man. To those who are imperfect and impure temptation is offered,—the temptation perhaps of party, perhaps of interest,—perhaps of resentment,—perhaps of ambition. You cannot make men proof against these temptations but by making them good; and modes of electing or frequency of election will not do this. The only reformation must result from the reformation of the heart. Electors themselves are not solicitous to elect good men. They are influenced by passion, and interest, and party.—How then should they select those who are independent, and disinterested, and temperate?
But evils which cannot be removed may be diminished; and since the evil in question indicates an insufficient degree of liberty, both civil and political, it may be of advantage to inquire whether both cannot be and ought not to be increased.
Now, remembering that it lies upon the legislature to prove that the present institutions are the best,—what is the evidence that mischief would arise from an extension of the franchise, and from an alteration of the modes of election? We are not required to evince that benefit would arise from such measures; because their propriety is dictated by the principles of political truth, unless it is shown that they would be pernicious. Assuredly, in contemplating mere probabilities, it is more probable that a representative will be virtuously chosen, when he is chosen by a thousand men than when by only ten. The reason is simple, that it is much more difficult to offer vicious motives to the electors. If the probability of advantage in such an alteration is disputable, it must be by the production of very strong probabilities on the other side. And until those probabilities are adduced, I see not how it can be denied that from the public is withheld a portion of their civil rights. There is always one powerful reason for an extension of the legal right of election; which is, that it tends to satisfy the people. This satisfaction is of importance, whether the wish of the people be in itself desirable or not: so that of two measure’s which in other respects were equally eligible, that would become the best and the right one which imparted the greatest satisfaction to the community. It cannot be hoped that this satisfaction will ever prevail during the continuance of the present state of the franchise. Its irregular and inconsistent character will always (even setting aside its consequences) give rise to uneasiness and complaints. A large county can never think political justice is exercised while it sends no more members than a little borough. Birmingham and Manchester will never think it is exercised, while Old Sarum sends two members and they send none.
There are, no doubt, many difficulties interposed in the way of the legislature in proceeding to a reformation,—which difficulties, however, will generally be found to result from the existing impurity of the present system. It is not perhaps impossible that if a House of Commons were selected by any approach to universal suffrage, it would ere long interfere with the established modes of governing. Many, it is probable, would feel that their prejudices were outraged, and their interests invaded, and their privileges diminished or taken away. These prospects interpose difficulties; and yet unless these prejudices are reasonable, and these interests virtuous, and these privileges dictated by the public good, it will be seen that the difficulties of reform result, not from any defect in the principles of political truth, but from the conflict between the operation of those principles and exceptionable systems.
Not, indeed, that a representative body, however elected, is to be concluded as necessarily temperate and wise. There is much reason to fear, in the present state of private virtue, that if the House of Commons were a purely popular assembly, it might both injudiciously and unjustifiably excite political distractions. If, on the one hand, they found that any existing institutions required amendment, they would probably on the other hand seek to establish popular power in opposition to the general good.
Nevertheless, there appears sufficient reason for thinking that some alteration, and considerable alteration, might be made in the system of representation, which would do good without doing evil. If the British empire is not prepared for a purely popular representation, it is, I think, prepared for a representation more popular than that which obtain mild and gradual alteration is perhaps the best. The franchise may be extended, one by one, to new districts or new towns, and taken away or modified, one by one, from places in which the electors are few or in which they are corrupt. By such means the reformation might keep pace, and only keep pace, with the general progress of the nation, The prospect of successive amendment would tend to satisfy the public, and the general end be eventually answered by innoxious means.
Some want of enlargement of views appears to exist with respect to the propriety and the right of the legislature to remove the elective franchise. It seems to be thought that a borough ought not to be deprived of it, unless its corruption is both general and distinctly proved. But why? The franchise is not possessed for the gratification of the inhabitants of a particular spot, but for the national good. It might, no doubt, have originally been given for their gratification, but this was always an unreasonable motive for granting it. If the general advantage requires the transfer of the right of election, it wore strange indeed if the inhabitants of a little town ought to prevent it by exclaiming, Do not encroach upon our privileges. As to the property vested in the privilege, it is founded, if not in corruption, in political impropriety. For a householder to say, I have given a hundred pounds more for my premises because they conveyed a right of voting, or for a patron to say, I have given an extra five thousand for a manor because it enabled me to nominate two representatives, is surely a very insufficient reason for continuing a franchise that is adverse to the common weal. However, it is probable that the great object is, not to take away privileges, but to extend them, and by that extension to secure the probability of uninfluenced elections.
Universal suffrage is a by-word of political scorn and yet it is probable that the country will one day be fit for the adaption of universal suffrage. The objections to it are founded—as, antecedently to inquiry, I should expect they would be founded,—upon the ignorant and vicious state of mankind. If knowledge and virtue increase, universal suffrage may hereafter be rightly adopted.—If they are now increasing, approaches towards such suffrage are desirable now. Nor perhaps is the public preparation for these approaches so little as some men suppose. A part of our objections to it are quite fortuitous and accidental, and easily removable by legislative enactments. Nor again is it to be forgotten that some of the states in the American Union do actually adopt universal suffrage, or something that is very much like it. Upon this subject it is always to be remembered, that unless the withholding of the privilege of election is necessary to the national welfare, the possession of it is, in strictness, a civil right. It can never be shown upon other grounds than expediency, why one man should possess the privilege while his neighbour should not.
The present modes of election are productive of much evil,—evil by facilitating undue influence,—evil by occasioning immorality and riot, and evil by attaching to the idea of frequent elections ideas of national inquietude and confusion. When we see, at the time of an election, a multitude of men brought together, many of them perhaps from a distance, and fed and lodged at the expense of one of the candidates, we certainly see that the door is opened wide for the entrance of corruption. In 1696 an act was passed “for voiding all the elections of parliamentmen, at which the elected had been at any expense in meat, drink, or money to procure votes.”7 When we see the neighbouring tenantry of the several large land-owners (petty freeholders though they be) classed in separate bodies, and voting, almost to a man, for the favourite of their landlord, we see either that improper influence is grossly employed, or that the exercise of private judgment is with such voters only a name. If indeed there were no possibility of obtaining more considerate votes from the population, I know not that much is to be hoped from a great extension of the franchise, or from an alteration of the modes of election.—The riot and confusion of elections is so great, that politicians find it needful to advise dissolutions of parliament, at periods when it is supposed that the excitement may be safely occasioned without endangering mischief to the general tranquillity. It would not be found a small item in the national guilt, if we were to compute the amount of private vice, of intemperance, profaneness, and debauchery which a general election occasions.—These evils; again, are urged against proposals for increasing the frequency of elections! Thus one vicious system becomes an excuse for another. You are afraid to endeavour parliamentary integrity by frequent elections, because your bad system of elections produces so much mischief! The simple and obvious remedy is to elect representatives on a less objectionable system. A few propositions respecting the modes of election, will probably not be rejected by reasonable men.
That the elector should not be obliged to go to a distance from his own home:—because, if the place of election be distant, he will either refuse to go,—which nullifies the institution with respect to him; or he will go, and expect to be reimbursed his expenses and his loss of time, which leads, almost inevitably, to corruption.
That candidates should be at no expense in conducting the election:—because their payments will operate as bribes,—because the necessity of expense precludes virtuous and able men who cannot afford it, from being chosen,—and because be who has, in this sense, purchased his seat is in danger of thinking himself at liberty to repay himself by seeking the rewards of political subserviency.
That it ought not to be known for what candidate an elector votes:8—because, if it is known, the elector will probably be afraid to vote for the man of his own choice, lest some friend of an adverse candidate, in whose good offices he is interested, should withdraw them.
These propositions tend to the recommendation of some species of ballot, for securing secrecy; of elections at the public expense, for excluding the mischiefs of expenses to the candidate; and of the visit, probably, of proper officers from house to house, to exclude the mischiefs of requiring electors to leave their homes. Such institutions would, I believe, prevent many, at least, of the mischiefs, moral and political, of the present system; and would take away from the advocate of long-lived parliaments, one popular reason in their favour.
[“Annual parliaments” is another by-word of contempt; and perhaps they will never be expedient. This is one question: the expediency of septennial parliaments is another. Nor is it a very philosophical nor a very honest mode of contemning an alteration, to assume that there is no practicable intermediate period between one year and seven. The American House of Representatives is elected for two years, and as their senate also is a representative body, while our House of Lords is not, it is probable that biennial parliaments, with a reformed mode of election, would be practicable and beneficial here.]
[The electors of a district choose a man of whom they hope rather than know the character. They find in the course of a year or two that he is unable or unwilling to discharge his public duty. To prevent such electors from making another choice,—to oblige them, for seven years, to be, in effect, destitute of a representation, is a serious grievance, and it may be a serious evil.]
[A little before a dissolution there is sometimes a manifest endeavor to conciliate the public by the adoption of some measure which they approve. Can it be doubted that there would be an advantage in making such measures more frequently necessary? or that more frequent parliaments would perceive the necessity, and act upon it?]
With respect to the qualification for voting, no rule can be prescribed, because no rule can define how large a portion of the people, or whether the whole, ought to possess votes. The security of the virtuous exercise of the privilege is manifestly the object to be attained,—which security must be sought according to some general rule. It may be doubted whether (until all men are fit to become electors) any general rule is better than that of amount of property; not so much because the possession of property exempts men from vicious influence, as because, among the possessors of some competent property is the largest portion of thinking men. We want, not only an unbiased, but a rational judgment. In the present state of property, the preference in towns of freeholders to renters appears to be carried too far. The man who rents a house of forty pounds a year is much more likely to give a free and considerate vote than he who possesses only a freehold of three or four pounds. Whatever qualification is required it should be universally uniform. At any rate, it should vary only in compliance with the local necessities of a district. “Freedom” of burghs and cities, and the rules by which freedom is obtainable, are relics of a barbarous state of policy,—relics which appear unworthy of the present age. They are like the local jurisdictions of chartered magistracy, which one of our Judges recently reprobated from the bench as blots in the constitution.
No qualifications should be required in a representative but the single and sufficient one, that his constituents prefer him to any other man. It is a hardship upon them and upon him to thwart their choice—the best perhaps that could be made—because the candidate does not possess a certain amount of wealth. The case is different from that of the electors; for though the exaction of wealth in a representative may exclude some of the fittest men in the country to assist the councils of the state, yet from the eligibility of every man there is no danger that such a proportion of poorer men would be elected as to impede the legislature by their ignorance or vice.
The peculiar circumstances of a people may indeed occasion the propriety of requiring some qualification in their legislators. When the American colonies had separated themselves from England, and were anxious to perpetuate their independence, and when they observed that their country was continually replenishing with new adventurers, it was perhaps reasonable to enact, that the members of their government should have been American citizens a certain number of years. But local and temporary necessities do not affect the general truth.
Canvassing for votes is a vulgar and unworthy custom. I know not how it happens that a man of honourable mind is content to wander over the country, and call obeisantly at the doors of ignorant and low-men to solicit them to choose him for their representative. Why, if they prefer him they ought to choose him without solicitation. If they do not, they ought not to choose him with it. I should not like the consciousness that I possessed my seat, not because I deserved it, but because I begged the voters to elect me. Gentlemen, I doubt not, often feel the humiliation and experience the disgust of these canvasses. It is one among the many sacrifices of manly dignity which are connected with political affairs.
To an inquirer who was uninformed of the national circumstances it might appear an unaccountable absurdity to preclude Christian ministers from becoming the representative legislators of a Christian people. The better a man is, the better fitted he is for a legislator; and assuming that Christian pastors are among the best men, there seems no rational motive to exclude them from the senate. Abating the peculiar circumstances of a people, I can perceive no reason for excluding them which would not hold in favour of excluding Christianity itself, To Christian legislators, Christianity is the primary rule:—who then would refuse admittance to those of whom it may be presumed that they best understand the Christian law? But, when we tum from the dictates of abstract reason and propriety to the state of a nation in which there is an established church,—a church which assigns to one minister one specific spot for the exercise of its functions,—we are presented with a very different scene. You cannot elect one of them (setting sinecures out of the question) without taking him away from his appointed charge, nor without leaving that charge to be as sheep without a shepherd. Nevertheless, since there are in fact more clergymen than parishes, it does not appear obvious why they should be refused eligibility. I would not, as in the case of the bishops, make any number or any order of clergy legislator because they were clergy; but neither would I, because they were clergy, refuse to admit them. Perhaps, if the institution were remodelled, clergy might be allowed to be eligible,—for their exclusion, it may be presumed, is the result originally rather of accident than design. They once had a convocation of their own with considerable political power; and when that convocation fell into disuse, no one perhaps thought of their reasonable claims for admissibility to the House of Commons. Let the writer be understood:—he is not proposing that Episcopal clergy, as such, should be admitted into our House of Commons, but he is saying, that Christian ministers should not, as such, be excluded from the councils of a Christian nation. Penn was not the worse legislator because he was an active minister of the gospel.
But, after all, it is disputed whether any alteration in the constitution of the House of Commons or in the system of representation would produce good effects,—whether more virtue or more talent could be collected than is collected now. A question this, of which the negative has the advantage of experience, and the positive has not. We know that the present system has done good:—the effect of another is involved in uncertainty. Now let it be considered, first, that from the reign of Elizabeth through several succeeding reigns down to the revolution, the actual power of the House of Commons increased. Was not that increase productive, on the whole, and is it not at the present hour productive, of good effects? Granting that it was,—will any man affirm that one hundred and forty years have added nothing to the capability of the British public to judge soundly respecting political affairs! If the capacity of sound judgment is increased, is it unreasonable—remembering the principles of political truth—that that judgment should possess a greater influence in the conduct of public affairs? If that influence ought in reason to be increased, how shall the increase be so judiciously contrived as by making the House of Commons a more accurate and immediate representative of the public mind?
As to the virtue, then, of the House of Commons, its peculiar and characteristic virtue consists in the accuracy of their representation; and no man, I think, will deny that a greater practical representation is possible than that which now obtains It is asked, “If such a number of such men be liable to the influence of corrupt motives, what assembly of men will be secure from the same danger?”9 But this is not the question: for even if six hundred and fifty-eight men could not be selected who would be more proof against corruption when elected for seven years, yet the same men might be found more proof against it if they were elected only for two. A minister then, instead of having to provide the inducements of influence for six hundred and fifty-eight men, would have to provide them for nearly two thousand. Either be must augment three or four fold the aggregate amount of his influence, or he must, in the same proportion, diminish its power upon individuals. To think of so increasing the amount is absurd. He must therefore curtail its individual streams. It would then be much less worth the while of a member to submit to corruption. The temptation would be diminished, and with the diminution of temptation there would be an increase of practical virtue. Nor is this all. It is, I believe, an undisputed fact, that those who represent the largest number of electors are, in the aggregate, less subject to influence than those who represent a few. An altered mode of representation might increase the number of those whose constituents were numerous, or make them numerous to all—and thus that scale of virtuous independence which is now found among a part of the representatives might then be found in all.
Then as to the accumulation of talent. I think it questionable whether the brilliancy of the House of Commons would not be diminished by such an alteration as that of which we speak; partly because, in the language of Dr. Paley, “When boroughs are set to sale, those men are likely to become purchasers who are enabled by their talents to make the best of their bargain.” Granting all this, the answer is at hand,—that splendor of abilities is much less necessary than integrity of virtue. If the question is between talent and rectitude,—rectitude is our choice. Unusual talents, how much soever they may amuse and delight the House, and how acceptably soever they may fill the columns of a newspaper, are greatly overrated in value, at least they are greatly overrated in reference to a sound state of political affairs. The tortuous and wily policy which obtains needs, no doubt, much sagacity and adroitness to conduct it successfully and with a fair face. What is really wanted in a legislator is not brilliancy of talent, but a sound, and an enlightened, and an upright mind. Nor is it to be forgotten, that the splendid talents of those who seek “to make the best of their bargain” may be an evil rather than a good. The bargain, it is to be feared, will be a losing one to the public; and by him who makes the best the public may lose the most. After all, it needs not to be feared that six or seven hundred of such men as a House of Commons will always contain, will possess a sufficient aggregate of ability for all the needful and all the virtuous business of the House.
It has sometimes been inquired, What are the duties of a representative with respect to his constituents? Generally, it is his duty to represent their opinions, and to act and vote upon his own. It has been well remarked, that a senator should consider himself not so much the representative of one portion of the community as a legislator for all; and he can fulfil this superior duty only by exercising his individual judgment. Nevertheless, a man with a nice sense of justice and honour, if it be found that the majority of his votes were at variance with the desires of his constituents, ought to reflect that he is really no longer their representative, and to offer the resignation of their trust into their hands.
It is curious, that while it is thus made a question whether a man should follow his own judgment in opposition to that of his constituents, no question seems to be entertained whether a man should follow his own judgment in opposition to his patron’s. There the elector’s opinion is to prevail: else the representative is not a man of honour!—else, he does not fulfil the condition on which he was appointed! At the contemplation of such things common sense is confounded, and purity turns away her eyes!10
Among the extraordinary doctrines which have arisen out of the impurity of political transactions, that of the “constitutional propriety of a systematic opposition” is one. To assert this is to exhibit the political disease,—as he who has got the gout manifests the disorder to his visiters by his swathed and cushioned leg. You cannot frame a more preposterous proposition than that good government ought to be systematically opposed. If a government ought to be opposed, it is only because it is not good. If, being good, it is systematically opposed, there is viciousness in the opposition. In whatever way you defend an organized opposition, you assume the existence of evil. The motives in which the systematic opposition of some men is founded correspond with the pervading impurity. Although there is reason to be assured that of some the very frequent opposition to a ministry is the result of political integrity, of others it cannot be doubted that the motives are kindred to those which are intimated in the humiliating note below.11
[The invective, and the ridicule, and retort, and personality which are frequently indulged within the walls of parliament, and from which much amusement appears to be derived to the members and to the public, imply, to be sure, a sufficient degree of forgetfulness of the purpose for which parliaments meet. A spectator might sometimes imagine that the object of the assembly was to witness exhibitions of intellectual gladiators, rather than to debate respecting the welfare of a great nation. Nor can it be supposed that if this welfare were sufficiently, that is to say, constantly, dominant in the recollection, there would be so much solicitude to expose individual weaknesses and absurdity, or to obtain personal triumph.]
Much is said about “the exclusion of placemen and pensioners from parliament,”—the propriety or impropriety of which is to be determined by the same rules as the question of political influence. If influence is necessary to the existence of the present form of government, and if that influence is necessary in parliament, I see little ground to declaim against the admission of placemen. In a purer state of society they would no doubt be improper members, because then none ought to be members who have any inducement to sacrifice the interests of the public to their own. By the act of settlement indeed it was provided “That no person who has an office or place of profit under the king, or receives a pension from the crown, shall be capable of serving as member of the House of Commons.” The spirit of this provision is practically superseded, though its letter so far operates that a king’s counsel who receives a few pounds a year as a salary from the crown is incapable of possessing a seat. However, subsequently to the act of settlement various attempts were made really to exclude the possessors of offices and pensions. Bill after bill actually passed the House, but the measure was rejected and again rejected by the lords. To pass such a bill in the present day, and to act upon it, would probably be tantamount to an overthrow of the constitution.
It has sometimes been a subject of wonder to the writer, when reflecting upon the anxious solicitude of men for posthumous celebrity, that this single motive has not induced more vigorous attempts on the part of a minister to regulate his measures by a stricter regard to the dictates of everlasting rectitude. I have wondered, because it is manifest from experience that posterity will and does regard those dictates in its estimate of the honours of the dead. A very few years dismiss much of the false colouring which temporary interests and politics throw over a minister’s conduct. It is ere long found that he obtains the largest share of posthumous celebrity who has most constantly adhered to virtue. I propose not the hope of this celebrity as a motive to the Christian; he has higher inducements: but I propose it to the man of ambition. The simple love of fame would be, if he were rational with respect to his own interests, a sufficient inducement to prefer that conduct which will former recommend itself to the approbation of mankind. When we shall see the statesman who has, in private and in public, but one standard of rectitude, and that one the standard which is proposed in the gospel; the statesman who is convinced, and acts upon the conviction, that every thing is wrong in the minister which would be wrong in the man; we shall see a statesman whom probably the clamour of to-day will call a fool or a traitor, but whom good men now, and all men hereafter, will regard as having attained almost to the pinnacle of virtue and honour, and whom God will receive with the sentence of Well done.
In concluding these brief disquisitions upon the British government. I would be allowed to state the conviction, and to urge it upon those who complain of its defects in theory or in practice, that there is nothing in that theory or in that practice which warrants the attempt at amendment by any species of violence. I say this, even if I did not think, as I do, that violence is unlawful upon other grounds. There are no evils which make violence politically expedient. The right way of effecting amendments is by enlightening the national mind,—by enabling the public to think justly and temperately of political affairs. If to this temperate and just judgment, any part of the practice or of the form of our government should appear clearly and unquestionably adverse to the general good, it needs not to be feared that the corresponding alteration will be made,—made by that best of all political agents, the power of deliberate public opinion. “The will of the people, when it is determined, permanent, and general, almost always at length prevails.”12 And if it should appear to the lover of his country, that the prevalence of this will is too long delayed, let him take comfort in the recollection that less is lost by the postponement of reformation, than would be lost in the struggle consequent upon intemperate measures.
1 Smollet: Hist. England, v. iii, p.71.
2 Fell’s Public Life of C.J. Fox.
3 Quoted by Fox.—Fell’s Memoirs.
4 Hume’s England.
5 Paley: Mor. and Pol. Phil. b.6, c.7.
6 William Pitt: Gifford’s Life, v. iii.
7 Smollett: Hist. England.
8 I am disposed to acknowledge that this secrecy of suffrages is not congruous with that manly independence which it were more desirable to promote. In a better state of society open voting appears the more virtuous and honourable course; for why should a man desire to conceal that which he thinks it right to do? Besides, balloting endangers the practice of hypocrisy, by promising or pretending to vote according to the wish of another, and taking advantage of the secrecy to vote against it.—Yet I see not that these consequences are such as to vitiate the system as applicable and as expedient in the present day.
9 Paley: Mor. and Pol. Phil. b.6, c.7.
10 Some members who have owed their seats to patronage have, I believe, had the virtue to stipulate for the freedom of their voices. Of this number it is said that the late Lord-chancellor Eldon was one.
11 Opposition “had received a mortal wound by the death of the late Prince of Wales, some of whose adherents had prudently sung their palinodia to the ministry, and been gratified with profitable employments; while others, setting too great a price upon their own importance kept aloof till the market was over, and were left to pine in secret over their disappointed ambition.”—Smollett’s England, v. iii. p. 391.
12 Paley: Mor. and Pol Phil b.6, c.7.
All Sub-Works of Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).:
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.
- Preface to the American Edition.
- Introductory Notices.
- Moral Obligations.
- Standard of Right and Wrong.
- Subordinate Standards of Right and Wrong.
- Standard of Right and Wrong Footnotes.
- Collateral Observations.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God Footnotes.