Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

I am no peer, nor like to be--but am in middle life in the mass of citizens; yet I should feel for a son who married a prostituted woman, or a daughter who married a dishonourable and prostituted man, as much as any peer in the realm.

You are afraid of the avaricious principle of fathers. But observe, that the avaricious principle is here mitigated very considerably. It is avarice by proxy; it is avarice, not working by itself, or for itself, but through the medium of parental affection, meaning to procure good to its offspring. But the contest is not between love and avarice.

While you would guard against the possible operation of this species of benevolent avarice, the avarice of the father, you let loose another species of avarice; that of the fortune-hunter, unmitigated, unqualified. To show the motives, who has heard of a man run ning away with a woman not worth sixpence? Do not call this by the name of the sweet and best passion-love. It is robbery; not a jot better than any other.

Would you suffer the sworn enemy of his family, his life, and his honour, possibly the shame and scandal and blot of human society, to debauch from his care and protection the dearest pledge that he has on earth, the sole comfort of his declining years, almost in infantine simplicity; and with it to carry into the hands of his enemy, and the disgrace of nature, the dear-earned substance of a careful and laborious life? Think of the daughter of an honest, virtuous parent allied to vice and infamy. Think of the hopeful son tied for life by the meretricious arts of the refuse of mercenary and promiscuous lewdness. Have mercy on the youth of both sexes ; protect them from their ignorance and inexperience ; protect one part of life by the wisdom of another; protect them by the wisdom of laws, and the care of nature.

SPEECH ON REFORM OF REPRESENTATION IN THE

HOUSE OF COMMONS.-16TH JUNE, 1784.

MR. SPEAKER—We have now discovered, at the close of the eighteenth century, that the constitution of England, which for a series of ages, had been the proud distinction of this country, always the admiration, and sometimes the envy, of the wise and learned in every

other tion, we have discovered that this boasted constitution, in the most

na

boasted part of it, is a gross imposition upon the understanding of mankind, an inşult to their feelings, and acting by contrivances destructive to the best and most valuable interests of the people. Our political architects have taken a survey of the fabric of the British constitation. It is singular, that they report nothing against the crown, nothing against the lords; but in the House of Commons everything is unsound; it is ruinous in every part. It is infested by the dry rot, and ready to tumble about our ears without their immediate help. You know by the faults they find, what are their ideas of the alteration. As all government stands upon opinion, they know that the way utterly to destroy it is to remove that opinion, to take away all reverence, all confidence from it; and then at the first blast of public discontent and popular tumult, it tumbles to the ground.

In considering this question, they who oppose it, oppose it on different grounds; one is, in the nature of a previous question ; that some alterations may be expedient, but that this is not the time for making them. The other is, that no essential alterations are at all wanting: and that neither now, or at any time, is it prudent or safe to be meddling with the fundamental principles and ancient tried usages of our constitution—that our representation is as nearly perfect as the necessary imperfection of human affairs and of human creatures will suffer it to be; and that it is a subject of prudent and honest use and thankful enjoyment, and not of captious criticism and rash experiment.

On the other side, there are two parties, who proceed on two grounds, in my opinion, as they state them, utterly irreconcileable. The one is juridical, the other political. The one is in the nature of a claim of right, on the supposed rights of man as man ; this party desire the decision of a suit. The other ground, as far as I can divine what it directly means, is, that the representation is not so politically framed as to answer the theory of its institution. As to the claim of right, the meanest petitioner, the most gross and ignorant, is as good as the best; in some respects his claim is more favourable on account of his ignorance ; his weakness, his poverty and distress, only add to his titles; he sues in formâ pauperis: he ought to be a favourite of the court. But when the other ground is taken, when the question is political, when a new constitution is to be made on a sound theory of government, then the presumptuous pride of didactic ignorance is to be excluded from the council in this high and arduous matter, which often bids defiance to the experience of the wisest. The first claims a personal representation, the latter rejects it with scorn and fervour. The language of the first party is plain

and intelligible; they, who plead an absolute right, cannot be satisfied with anything short of personal representation, because all natural rights must be the rights of individuals : as by nature there is no such thing as politic or corporate personality; all these ideas are mere fictions of law, they are creatures of voluntary institution ; men as men are individuals, and nothing else. They therefore, who reject the principle of natural and personal representation, are essentially and eternally at variance with those who claim it. As to the first sort of reformers, it is ridiculous to talk to them of the British constitution upon any or all of its bases ; for they lay it down, that every man ought to govern himself, and that where he cannot go himself he must send his representative, that all other government is usurpation, and is so far from having a claim to our obedience, that it is not only our right, but our duty, to resist it. Nine-tenths of the reformers argue thus, that is on the natural right. It is impossible not to make some reflection on the nature of this claim, or avoid a comparison between the extent of the principle and the present object of the demand. If this claim be founded, it is clear to what it goes. The House of Commons, in that light, undoubtedly is no representative of the people as a collection of individuals. Nobody pretends it, nobody can justify such an assertion. When you come to examine into this claim of right, founded on the right of self-government in each individual, yon find the thing demanded infinitely short of the principle of the demand. What! one third only of the legislature, of the government no sbare at all? What sort of treaty of partition is this for those who have no inherent right to the whole ? Give them all they ask, and your grant is still a cheat; for how comes only a third to be their younger children's fortune in this settlement ?

How came they neither to have the choice of kings, or lords, or judges, or generals, or admirals, or bishops, or priests, or ministers, or justices of peace? Why, what have you to answer in favour of the prior rights of the crown and peerage but this our constitution is a prescriptive constitution, it is a constitution whose sole authority is, that it has existed time out of mind. It is settled in these two portions against one, legislatively; and in the whole of the judicature, the whole of the federal capacity, of the executive, the prudential and the financial administration, in one alone. Nor was your House of Lords and the prerogatives of the crown settled on any adjudication in favour of natural rights, for they could never be so portioned. Your king, your lords, your judges, your juries, grand and little, all are prescriptive; and what proves it, is, the disputes not yet concluded. and never near becoming so, when any of them first originated.

[ocr errors]

Prescription is the most solid of all titles, not only to property, but, which is to secure that property, to government. They barmonize with each other, and give mutual aid to one another. It is accompanied with another ground of authority in the constitution of the human mind, presumption. It is a presumption in favour of any settled scheme of government against any untried project, that a nation has long existed and flourished under it. It is a better presumption even of the choice of a nation, far better than any sudden and temporary arrangement by actual election. (Because a nation is not an idea only of local extent, and individual momentary aggregation, but it is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers, and in space. And this is a choice not of one day, or one set of people, not a tumultuary and giddy choice, it is a deliberate election of ages and of generations ; it is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time. It is a vestment, which accommodates itself to the body. Nor is prescription of government formed upon blind unmeaning prejudices—for man is a most unwise, and a most wise being. The individual is foolish. The multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation ; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it almost always acts right.

The reason for the crown as it is, for the lords as they are, is my reason for the commons as they are, the electors as they are. Now, if the crown and the lords, and the judicatures, are all prescriptive, so is the House of Commons of the very same origin, and of no other. We and our electors have powers and privileges both made and circumscribed by prescription, as much to the full as the other parts; and as such we have always claimed them, and on other title. The House of Commons is a legislative body corporate by prescription, not made upon any given theory, but existing prescriptively-just like the rest. This prescription has made it essentially what it is, an aggregate collection of three parts, knights, citizens, burgesses. The question is, whether this has been always so, since the House of Commons has taken its present shape and circumstances, and has been an essential operative part of the constitution; which, I take it, it has been for at least five hundred years.

This I resolve to myself in the affirmative: and then another question arises ; whether this house stands firm opon its ancient founda

no

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

tions, and is not, by time and accidents, so declined from its perpendicular as to want the band of the wise and experienced architects of the day to set it upright again, and to prop and battress it up for duration ;-whether it continues true to the principles upon which it has hitherto stood ;-whether this be de facto the constitution of the House of Commons, as it has been since the time that the House of Commons has, without dispute, become a necessary and an efficient part of the British constitution ? To ask whether a thing, which has always been the same, stands to its usual principle, seems to me to be perfectly absurd; for how do you know the principles but from the construction ? and if that remains the same, the principles remain the same. It is true, that to say your constitution is what it has been, is no sufficient defence for those, who say it is a bad constitution. It is an answer to those, who say that it is a degenerate constitution. To those who say it is a bad one, I answer, look to its effects. In all moral machinery the moral results are its test.

On what grounds do we go to restore our constitution to what it has been at some given period, or to reform and re-construct it upon principles more conformable to a sound theory of government ? A prescriptive government, such as ours, never was the work of any legislator, never was made upon any foregone theory. It seems to me a preposterous way of reasoning, and a perfect confusion of ideas, to take the theories, which learned and speculative men have made from that government, and then supposing it made on these theories, which were made from it, to accuse the government as not corresponding with them. I do not vilify theory and speculation--no, because that would be to vilify reason itself. Neque decipitur ratio, neque decipit unquam. No; whenever I speak against theory, Í mean always a weak, erroneous, fallacious, unfounded, or imperfect theory; and one of the ways of discovering that it is-a-false theory, is by comparing ft with practice. This is the true touchstone of all theories, which regard man and the affairs of men-does it suit bis nature in general ;-does it suit his nature as modified by his habits ?

The more frequently this affair is discussed, the stronger the case appears to the sense and the feelings of mankind. I have no more doubt than I entertain of my existence, that this very thing, which is stated as an horrible thing, is the means of the preservation of our constitution, whilst it lasts; of curing it of many of the disorders, which attending every species of institution, would attend the principle of an exact local representation, or a representation on the principle of numbers. If you reject personal representation, you are

[ocr errors]
« ForrigeFortsett »