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The great subjects that are before the student are, as usual, the state and progress of the civil liberties of the country, of the religious liberties, and now more than ever, its commercial prosperity, under which head must be included the new system of a regular national debt, with all its consequences.
And first, with respect to the state and progress of the civil liberties of the country.
The great point, and that which I have mentioned as giving a predominant interest to the whole, as forming the more peculiar merit of Walpole, is, that he secured the House of Hanover on the throne. In this every thing that concerned the civil and religious liberties of the country may be considered as involved, for if this had not been effected, the experiment of the Revolution had failed, and with it the great cause of both.
But in other respects, the civil liberties of the country were partly progressive, and partly not. Thus, for instance, they were progressive, because the speeches from the throne always proceeded upon principles favourable to the liberties of the subject; some of them remarkably so; you will see specimens of them in the note book on the table. No harsh measures were insisted
the cise scheme was given up, entirely upon the grounds of the expediency of mild government; Sir Robert Walpole declaring, and to his immortal honour declaring, that though his opinion remained the same, he would not be the minister who should carry on any measure of this sort by force. Not only in England, but in Scotland and in Ireland, proper attention was shown to public opinion, by this wise, and, in this respect, very virtuous minister. Publications of great spirit, ability, and virulence, continually issued from the press in opposition to his administration; yet the liberty of the press was, by the minister, not violated. It even appears that Sir Robert had his own writers in regular pay, who, as well as Lord Hervey and his brother, addressed the public in his defence, and that a continual appeal was thus made to the community in a way very well fitted, notwithstanding all that may be said of faction and party, to advance their improvement and political happiness.
Particulars of this nature are very favourable specimens of
this minister, and of the progress of the civil liberties of the country.
There are others not so. The Septennial Bill had been carried, and yet place bills during the era of his power were always rejected. Again : when each new parliament met, the decisions on controverted elections were made, not so much upon the merits of the case, as upon the party principles of the candidate, and because Sir Robert was the minister, and could therefore carry all such questions in favour of his own friends, no effort was made to remedy so obvious and so fatal a defect in the constitution.
But it is impossible for the student to form any proper estimate of the progress and state of the civil liberties of the country, during this period, without adverting to the debates that took place in the houses of parliament, and to these therefore I must direct your
attention. I must observe, however, once for all, that the exact point of the propriety, or impropriety, of the reasonings of our ancestors, is not so much the question itself, as what was the spirit, and what the notions, which were then thought constitutional and worthy the adoption of Englishmen. These may be right, though their application may be wrong. What the inhabitants of a free country should endeavour to attain is, to preserve in purity and vigour those feelings and those principles which did their ancestors honour, and then afterwards shape and direct them to the accomplishment of proper objects, as circumstances require.
What I would therefore propose to the student is, to take the debates, and observe those subjects which are more evidently of a general and constitutional nature. Let him consider what was, on such occasions, the language of our patriots and statesmen, and he will then derive a general impression from the whole, which cannot possibly be conveyed to bim by any other means.
Let bim take, for instance, the question of the Mutiny Act. The speeches in the House of Commons are, it is true, not given, but he will see that the question of death (that is, death to be inflicted by the military, not the civil power) was only carried by two hundred and forty-seven to two hundred and twenty-nine; and when he follows the bill, as he must in
all cases do, to the House of Lords, he will there see a debate, and he must in this case, as in all others, mark well the protest.
The articles of war may be found in Tindal’s History, and should be read.
Again : let him observe by all means the debates that took place, when the number of the forces for each year came to be voted. This subject should be pursued from volume to volume. The debates were always interesting, characteristic of the times, of the constitutional notions of our ancestors, and of the leading speakers of the houses. In the course of one of these debates, Shippen, the famous Tory, or rather Jacobite member, was sent to the Tower. In one of these discussions there is a very good speech from Mr. Jefferies.
In the lords, too, you will find the debates on this subject (the subject, in fact, of a standing army) well worthy that great assembly, and the protests sometimes very good.
Again: in these debates of the two houses, during the era before us, the subject of pensions and places often occurred,
, and the proceedings that took place should always be noted.
A great jealousy on this subject was considered, in these days, as patriotic; I say patriotic, because these bills were contended for by the opposition; and an opposition, whatever may be thought of their real opinions and views, must at least endeavour to distinguish themselves by an apparent attachment to such measures as awaken the honest approbation of the community. Of this character, therefore, must
, have been thought their efforts to diminish the influence of the crown. These efforts were made in motions, to address his majesty to retrench unnecessary pensions; and in bills, to limit the number of placemen in the House of Commons. What the court thought of such efforts may be collected from the expression of George II., a patriotic monarch, but irritable man, with narrow views, and who therefore honoured one of these with the appellation of “ that villainous bill.” Bills of this sort sometimes succeeded in the commons, but always failed in the lords, Sir Robert thinking it his best policy to stifle them there. The debates must be read in the different volumes. The first speakers interfered, and their speeches continually illustrate the nature of our constitution.
In the lords, the debates on these occasions were, in general, very good; the protests sometimes remarkable.
In one of these debates, Dr. Sherlock, then Bishop of Bangor, expressed himself in terms that seem to have produced a very great sensation at the time :-“ That an independent House of Commons was as inconsistent with our constitution, as an independent, that is, absolute king."
It may be remembered, that Dr. Paley, in his Chapters on the British Constitution, conducts his reasonings pretty nearly to the same conclusion.
I would more particularly refer you to the debate that took place in the lords, in March, 1739: all the great speakers interfered. I am not aware that I could produce, from any of these volumes, a specimen of calm and perspicuous reasoning so beautiful, as the speech delivered on this occasion by Lord Carlisle.
It is to be observed in debates like these, that arguments are often brought against the provisions of a bill, by those who are unfavourable to the very principle, and who would equally argue against all provisions, to the same effect, be they what they might. The first point, therefore, to be considered in reading such debates is, whether the principle is made out to be just and constitutional. The next (and to us an inferior, though still an important consideration) is, whether our ancestors contrived the provisions of these bills with legislative skill; and though this may, or may not, have been the case, the original principle and intention of the bill may still be right, and worthy of the attention of posterity.
One great question that gives interest to these times, and to the debates of these times, was the Septennial Bill.
Originally the parliament had no precise limit of duration; one sat in Charles the Second's time for seventeen or eighteen years.
William III., however, was induced at last to consent to the Triennial Bill, which limited the duration to three years. To enact, therefore, the Septennial Bill, was to diminish the extent of the victory which the popular part of the constitution had obtained, and the measure has therefore been always made a matter of reproach to the Whig party. In this reproach, when I first gave lectures, more than twenty years ago, I concurred, unwillingly indeed; for to the Whigs of the last century I then believed, and I shall always believe, we owe all the constitutional blessings we enjoy: but I have since satisfied myself, from what I understand of the nature of the Stuart Papers, and what I have learnt from other sources, that the measure of the Septennial Bill was necessary to the maintenance of the Brunswick family on the throne, and that a general election at the time could not have been ventured upon.
It is to be observed also, that the Triennial Bill had been enacted but twenty years before, and was a fair subject of revision.
The speeches, however, of Shippen and others, are worthy of attention ; and particularly the speech of Sir Robert, in the year 1734, when the repeal of the bill was brought forward, and when he placed his argument on the fair and right ground, that the Septennial Bill had improved the constitution, and prevented it from being too democratic*.
One of the most striking circumstances in the administration of Sir Robert Walpole, was the conduct of the nation on the subject of the excise scheme. It was a very striking exemplification of the constitutional jealousy which animated our ancestors at this particular period. The minister found himself at last obliged to abandon his measure, and the opposition to the bill owed its success entirely to the sensation that was excited in the community on that general ground of
constitutional jealousy. “ Liberty, property, and no excise,” * was every where the cry, and the cry that triumphed. The sentiment, whether in this instance judiciously applied or not, did the community honour. It was a sentiment received from earlier times, and was then, even in its application on
On this subject, when I first delivered these lectures, I dwelt at some length, summing up first in favour of triennial, afterwards of quinquennial parliaments; but this was in the reign of George III. The question has been fundamentally altered by the passing of the Reform Bill. The difficulty now is, not to keep the representative attentive to the wishes of his constituents, but to keep him from being a delegate.
Again: the only means by which the king can maintain his consequence in the system of the constitution, is, his power of dissolving the parliament, a power which would be materially, and now dangerously, interfered with hy short parliaments.