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Opposition to universal suffrage

Thomas Babington Macaulay's opposition to the People's Charter

from Hansard, Vol. 63, 3 May 1842.

On 2 May 1842, Mr Thomas Duncombe, MP for Finsbury, presented the Chartist petition which said:

"Your petitioners, therefore, exercising their just constitutional right, demand that your Honourable House, to remedy the many gross and manifest evils of which your petitioners complain, do immediately, without alteration, deduction, or addition, pass into a law the document entitled the People's Charter."

On the following day Mr Thomas Duncombe moved that the petitioners should be heard by themselves or their Counsel at the Bar of the House. The following speech was made in opposition to the motion, which was rejected by 287 votes to 49.

This is the text of the speech given by Macaulay in parliament.

Mr Speaker, - I was particularly desirous to catch your eye this evening, because, when the motion of the honourable Member of Rochdale [Mr Sharman Crawford] was under discussion, I was unable to be in my place. I understand that, on that occasion, the absence of some members of the late Government was noticed in severe terms, and was attributed to discreditable motives. As for myself, Sir, I was prevented from coming down to the House by illness: a noble friend of mine, to whom particular allusion was made, was detained elsewhere by pure accident; and I am convinced that no member of the late administration was withheld by any unworthy feeling from avowing his opinions. My own opinions I could have no motive for disguising. They have been frequently avowed, and avowed before audiences which were not likely to regard them with much favour.

I should wish, Sir, to say what I have to say in the temperate tone which has with so much propriety been preserved by the right honourable Baronet the Secretary for the Home Department [Sir James Graham]; but, if I should use any warm expression, I trust that the House will attribute it to the strength of my convictions and to my solicitude for the public interests. No person who knows me will, I am quite sure, suspect me of regarding the hundreds of thousands who have signed the petition which we are now considering, with any other feeling than cordial goodwill.

Sir, I cannot conscientiously assent to this motion. And yet I must admit that the honourable Member for Finsbury [Mr Thomas Duncombe] has framed it with considerable skill. He has done his best to obtain the support of all those timid and interested politicians who think much more about the security of their seats than about the security of their country. It would be very convenient to me to give a silent vote with him. I should then have it in my power to say to the Chartists of Edinburgh, "When your petition was before the House I was on your side: I was for giving you a full hearing." I should at the same time be able to assure my Conservative constituents that I never had supported and never would support the Charter. But, Sir, though this course would be very convenient, it is one which my sense of duty will not suffer me to take. When questions of private right are before us, we hear, and we ought to hear, the arguments of the parties interested in those questions. But it has never been, and surely it ought not to be, our practice to grant a hearing to persons who petition for or against a law in which they have no other interest than that which is common between them and the whole nation. Of the many who petitioned against slavery, against the Roman Catholic claims, against the corn laws, none was suffered to harangue us at the bar in support of his views. If in the present case we depart from a general rule which everybody must admit to be a very wholesome one, what inference can reasonably be drawn from our conduct, except this, that we think the petition which we are now considering entitled to extraordinary respect, and that we have not fully made up our minds to refuse what the petitioners ask? Now, Sir, I have fully made up my mind to resist to the last the change which they urge us to make in the constitution of the kingdom. I therefore think that I should act disingenuously if I gave my voice for calling in orators whose eloquence, I am certain, will make no alteration in my opinion. I think too that if, after voting for hearing the petitioners, I should then vote against granting their prayer, I should give them just ground for accusing me of having first encouraged and then deserted them. That accusation, at least, they shall never bring against me.

The honourable Member for Westminster [Mr Leader] has expressed a hope that the language of the petition will not be subjected to severe criticism. If he means literary criticism, I entirely agree with him. The style of this composition is safe from any censure of mine; but the substance it is absolutely necessary that we should closely examine. What the petitioners demand is this, that we do forthwith pass what is called the People's Charter into a law without alteration, diminution, or addition. This is the prayer in support of which the honourable Member for Finsbury would have us hear an argument at the bar. Is it then reasonable to say, as some gentlemen have said, that, in voting for the honourable Member's motion, they mean to vote merely for an inquiry into the causes of the public distress? If any gentleman thinks that an inquiry into the causes of the public distress would be useful, let him move for such an inquiry. I will not oppose it. But this petition does not tell us to inquire. It tells us that we are not to inquire. It directs us to pass a certain law word for word, and to pass it without the smallest delay.

I shall, Sir, notwithstanding the request or command of the petitioners, venture to exercise my right of free speech on the subject of the People's Charter. There is, among the six points of the Charter, one for which I have voted. There is another of which I decidedly approve. There are others as to which, though I do not agree with the petitioners, I could go some way to meet them. In fact, there is only one of the six points on which I am diametrically opposed to them: but unfortunately that point happens to be infinitely the most important of the six.

One of the six points is the ballot. I have voted for the ballot; and I have seen no reason to change my opinion on that subject.

Another point is the abolition of the pecuniary qualification for members of this House. On that point I cordially agree with the petitioners. You have established a sufficient pecuniary qualification for the elector; and it therefore seems to me quite superfluous to require a pecuniary qualification from the representative. Everybody knows that many English members have only fictitious qualifications, and that the members for Scotch cities and boroughs are not required to have any qualification at all. It is surely absurd to admit the representatives of Edinburgh and Glasgow without any qualification, and at the same time to require the representative of Finsbury or Marylebone to possess a qualification or the semblance of one. If the qualification really be a security for respectability, let that security be demanded from us who sit here for Scotch towns. If, as I believe, the qualification is no security at all, why should we require it from anybody? It is no part of the old constitution of the realm. It was first established in the reign of Anne. It was established by a bad parliament for a bad purpose. It was, in fact, part of a course of legislation which, if it had not been happily interrupted, would have ended in the repeal of the Toleration Act and of the Act of Settlement.

The Chartists demand annual parliaments. There, certainly, I differ from them; but I might, perhaps, be willing to consent to some compromise. I differ from them also as to the expediency of paying the representatives of the people, and of dividing the country into electoral districts. But I do not consider these matters as vital. The kingdom might, I acknowledge, be free, great, and happy, though the members of this house received salaries, and though the present boundaries of counties and boroughs were superseded by new lines of demarcation. These, Sir, are subordinate questions. I do not of course mean that they are not important. But they are subordinate when compared with that question which still remains to be considered. The essence of the Charter is universal suffrage. If you withhold that, it matters not very much what else you grant. If you grant that, it matters not at all what else you withhold. If you grant that, the country is lost.

I have no blind attachment to ancient usages. I altogether disclaim what has been nicknamed the doctrine of finality. I have said enough to-night to show that I do not consider the settlement made by the Reform Bill as one which can last for ever. I certainly do think that an extensive change in the polity of a nation must be attended with serious evils. Still those evils may be overbalanced by advantages: and I am perfectly ready, in every case, to weigh the evils against the advantages, and to judge as well as I can which scale preponderates. I am bound by no tie to oppose any reform which I think likely to promote the public good. I will go so far as to say that I do not quite agree with those who think that they have proved the People's Charter to be absurd when they have proved that it is incompatible with the existence of the throne and of the peerage. For, though I am a faithful and loyal subject of Her Majesty, and though I sincerely wish to see the House of Lords powerful and respected, I cannot consider either monarchy or aristocracy as the ends of government. They are only means. Nations have flourished without hereditary sovereigns or assemblies of nobles; and, though I should be very sorry to see England a republic, I do not doubt that she might, as a republic, enjoy prosperity, tranquillity, and high consideration. The dread and aversion with which I regard universal suffrage would be greatly diminished, if I could believe that the worst effect which it would produce would be to give us an elective first magistrate and a senate instead of a Queen and a House of Peers. My firm conviction is that, in our country, universal suffrage is incompatible, not with this or that form of government, but with all forms of government, and with everything for the sake of which forms of government exist; that it is incompatible with property, and that it is consequently incompatible with civilisation.

It is not necessary for me in this place to go through the arguments which prove beyond dispute that on the security of property civilisation depends; that, where property is insecure, no climate however delicious, no soil however fertile, no conveniences for trade and navigation, no natural endowments of body or of mind, can prevent a nation from sinking into barbarism; that where, on the other hand, men are protected in the enjoyment of what has been created by their industry and laid up by their self-denial, society will advance in arts and in wealth notwithstanding the sterility of the earth and the inclemency of the air, notwithstanding heavy taxes and destructive wars. Those persons who say that England has been greatly misgoverned, that her legislation is defective, that her wealth has been squandered in unjust and impolitic contests with America and with France, do in fact bear the strongest testimony to the truth of my doctrine. For that our country has made and is making great progress in all that contributes to the material comfort of man is indisputable. If that progress cannot be ascribed to the wisdom of the Government, to what can we ascribe it but to the diligence, the energy, the thrift of individuals? And to what can we ascribe that diligence, that energy, that thrift, except to the security which property has during many generations enjoyed here? Such is the power of this great principle that, even in the last war, the most costly war, beyond all comparison, that ever was waged in this world, the Government could not lavish wealth so fast as the productive classes created it.

If it be admitted that on the institution of property the well-being of society depends, it follows surely that it would be madness to give supreme power in the state to a class which would not be likely to respect that institution. And, if this be conceded, it seems to me to follow that it would be madness to grant the prayer of this petition. I entertain no hope that, if we place the government of the kingdom in the hands of the majority of the males of one-and-twenty told by the head, the institution of property will be respected. If I am asked why I entertain no such hope, I answer, because the hundreds of thousands of males of twenty-one who have signed this petition tell me to entertain no such hope; because they tell me that, if I trust them with power, the first use which they will make of it will be to plunder every man in the kingdom who has a good coat on his back and a good roof over his head. God forbid that I should put an unfair construction on their language! I will read their own words. This petition, be it remembered, is an authoritative declaration of the wishes of those who, if the Charter ever becomes law, will return the great majority of the House of Commons; and these are their words: "Your petitioners complain, that they are enormously taxed to pay the interest of what is called the national debt, a debt amounting at present to eight hundred millions, being only a portion of the enormous amount expended in cruel and expensive wars for the suppression of all liberty by men not authorised by the people, and who consequently had no right to tax posterity for the outrages committed by them upon mankind." If these words mean anything, they mean that the present generation is not bound to pay the public debt incurred by our rulers in past times, and that a national bankruptcy would be both just and politic. For my part, I believe it to be impossible to make any distinction between the right of a fundholder to his dividends and the right of a landowner to his rents. And, to do the petitioners justice, I must say that they seem to be much of the same mind. They are for dealing with fundholder and landowner alike. They tell us that nothing will "unshackle labour from its misery, until the people possess that power under which all monopoly and oppression must cease; and your petitioners respectfully mention the existing monopolies of the suffrage, of paper money, of machinery, of land, of the public press, of religion, of the means of travelling and transit, and a host of other evils too numerous to mention, all arising from class legislation." Absurd as this hubbub of words is, part of it is intelligible enough. What can the monopoly of land mean, except property in land? The only monopoly of land which exists in England is this, that nobody can sell an acre of land which does not belong to him. And what can the monopoly of machinery mean but property in machinery? Another monopoly which is to cease is the monopoly of the means of travelling. In other words all the canal property and railway property in the kingdom is to be confiscated. What other sense do the words bear? And these are only specimens of the reforms which, in the language of the petition, are to unshackle labour from its misery. There remains, it seems, a host of similar monopolies too numerous to mention; the monopoly I presume, which a draper has of his own stock of cloth; the monopoly which a hatter has of his own stock of hats; the monopoly which we all have of our furniture, bedding, and clothes. In short, the petitioners ask you to give them power in order that they may not leave a man of a hundred a year in the realm.

I am far from wishing to throw any blame on the ignorant crowds which have flocked to the tables where this petition was exhibited. Nothing is more natural than that the labouring people should be deceived by the arts of such men as the author of this absurd and wicked composition. We ourselves, with all our advantages of education, are often very credulous, very impatient, very shortsighted, when we are tried by pecuniary distress or bodily pain. We often resort to means of immediate relief which, as Reason tells us, if we would listen to her, are certain to aggravate our sufferings. Men of great abilities and knowledge have ruined their estates and their constitutions in this way. How then can we wonder that men less instructed than ourselves, and tried by privations such as we have never known, should be easily misled by mountebanks who promise impossibilities? Imagine a well-meaning laborious mechanic, fondly attached to his wife and children. Bad times come. He sees the wife whom he loves grow thinner and paler every day. His little ones cry for bread, and he has none to give them. Then come the professional agitators, the tempters, and tell him that there is enough and more than enough for everybody, and that he has too little only because landed gentlemen, fundholders, bankers, manufacturers, railway proprietors, shopkeepers have too much. Is it strange that the poor man should be deluded, and should eagerly sign such a petition as this? The inequality with which wealth is distributed forces itself on everybody's notice. It is at once perceived by the eye. The reasons which irrefragably prove this inequality to be necessary to the well-being of all classes are not equally obvious. Our honest working man has not received such an education as enables him to understand that the utmost distress that he has ever known is prosperity when compared with the distress which he would have to endure if there were a single month of general anarchy and plunder. But you say, it is not the fault of the labourer that he is not well educated. Most true. It is not his fault. But, though he has no share in the fault, he will, if you are foolish enough to give him supreme power in the state, have a very large share of the punishment. You say that, if the Government had not culpably omitted to establish a good system of public instruction, the petitioners would have been fit for the elective franchise. But is that a reason for giving them the franchise when their own petition proves that they are not fit for it; when they give us fair notice that, if we let them have it, they will use it to our ruin and their own? It is not necessary now to inquire whether, with universal education, we could safely have universal suffrage. What we are asked to do is to give universal suffrage before there is universal education. Have I any unkind feeling towards these poor people? No more than I have to a sick friend who implores me to give him a glass of iced water which the physician has forbidden. No more than a humane collector in India has to those poor peasants who in a season of scarcity crowd round the granaries and beg with tears and piteous gestures that the doors may be opened and the rice distributed. I would not give the draught of water, because I know that it would be poison. I would not give up the keys of the granary, because I know that, by doing so, I should turn a scarcity into a famine. And in the same way I would not yield to the importunity of multitudes who, exasperated by suffering and blinded by ignorance, demand with wild vehemence the liberty to destroy themselves.

But it is said, You must not attach so much importance to this petition. It is very foolish, no doubt, and disgraceful to the author, be he who he may. But you must not suppose that those who signed it approve of it. They have merely put their names or their marks without weighing the sense of the document which they subscribed. Surely, Sir, of all reasons that ever were given for receiving a petition with peculiar honours, the strangest is that it expresses sentiments diametrically opposed to the real sentiments of those who have signed it. And it is a not less strange reason for giving men supreme power in a state that they sign political manifestoes of the highest importance without taking the trouble to know what the contents are. But how is it possible for us to believe that, if the petitioners had the power which they demand, they would not use it as they threaten? During a long course of years, numerous speakers and writers, some of them ignorant, others dishonest, have been constantly representing the Government as able to do, and bound to do, things which no Government can, without great injury to the country, attempt to do. Every man of sense knows that the people support the Government. But the doctrine of the Chartist philosophers is that it is the business of the Government to support the people. It is supposed by many that our rulers possess, somewhere or other, an inexhaustible storehouse of all the necessaries and conveniences of life, and, from mere hardheartedness, refuse to distribute the contents of this magazine among the poor. We have all of us read speeches and tracts in which it seemed to be taken for granted that we who sit here have the power of working miracles, of sending a shower of manna on the West Riding, of striking the earth and furnishing all the towns of Lancashire with abundance of pure water, of feeding all the cotton-spinners and weavers who are out of work with five loaves and two fishes. There is not a working man who has not heard harangues and read newspapers in which these follies are taught. And do you believe that as soon as you give the working men absolute and irresistible power they will forget all this? Yes, Sir, absolute and irresistible power. The Charter would give them no less. In every constituent body throughout the empire the working men will, if we grant the prayer of this petition, be an irresistible majority. In every constituent body capital will be placed at the feet of labour; knowledge will be borne down by ignorance; and is it possible to doubt what the result must be? The honourable Member for Bath [John Arthur Roebuck] and the honourable Member for Rochdale [W.S. Crawford] are now considered as very democratic members of Parliament. They would occupy a very different position in a House of Commons elected by universal suffrage, if they succeeded in obtaining seats. They would, I believe, honestly oppose every attempt to rob the public creditor. They would manfully say, "Justice and the public good require that this sum of thirty millions a year should be paid;" and they would immediately be reviled as aristocrats, monopolists, oppressors of the poor, defenders of old abuses. And as to land, is it possible to believe that the millions who have been so long and loudly told that the land is their estate, and is wrongfully kept from them, should not, when they have supreme power, use that power to enforce what they think their rights? What could follow but one vast spoliation? One vast spoliation! That would be bad enough. That would be the greatest calamity that ever fell on our country. Yet would that a single vast spoliation were the worst! No, Sir; in the lowest deep there would be a lower deep. The first spoliation would not be the last. How could it? All the causes which had produced the first spoliation would still operate. They would operate more powerfully than before. The distress would be far greater than before. The fences which now protect property would all have been broken through, levelled, swept away. The new proprietors would have no title to show to anything that they held except recent robbery. With what face then could they complain of being robbed? What would be the end of these things? Our experience, God be praised, does not enable us to predict it with certainty. We can only guess. My guess is that we should see something more horrible than can be imagined - something like the siege of Jerusalem on a far larger scale. There would be many millions of human beings, crowded in a narrow space, deprived of all those resources which alone had made it possible for them to exist in so narrow a space; trade gone; manufactures gone; credit gone. What could they do but fight for the mere sustenance of nature, and tear each other to pieces till famine, and pestilence following in the train of famine, came to turn the terrible commotion into a more terrible repose? The best event, the very best event, that I can anticipate, - and what must the state of things be, if an Englishman and a Whig calls such an event the very best? - the very best event, I say, that I can anticipate is that out of the confusion a strong military despotism may arise, and that the sword, firmly grasped by some rough hand, may give a sort of protection to the miserable wreck of all that immense prosperity and glory. But, as to the noble institutions under which our country has made such progress in liberty, in wealth, in knowledge, in arts, do not deceive yourselves into the belief that we should ever see them again. We should never see them again. We should not deserve to see them. All those nations which envy our greatness would insult our downfall, a downfall which would be all our own work; and the history of our calamities would be told thus: England had institutions which, though imperfect, yet contained within themselves the means of remedying every imperfection; those institutions her legislators wantonly and madly threw away; nor could they urge in their excuse even the wretched plea that they were deceived by false promises; for, in the very petition with the prayer of which they were weak enough to comply, they were told, in the plainest terms, that public ruin would be the effect of their compliance.

Thinking thus, Sir, I will oppose, with every faculty which God has given me, every motion which directly or indirectly tends to the granting of universal suffrage. This motion I think, tends that way. If any gentleman here is prepared to vote for universal suffrage with a full view of all the consequences of universal suffrage as they are set forth in this petition, he acts with perfect consistency in voting for this motion. But, I must say, I heard with some surprise the honourable baronet the Member for Leicester [Sir John Easthope] say that, though he utterly disapproves of the petition, though he thinks of it just as I do, he wishes the petitioners to be heard at the bar in explanation of their opinions. [Sir John Easthope: To expound their opinion] I conceive that their opinions are quite sufficiently explained already; and to such opinions I am not disposed to pay any extraordinary mark of respect. I shall give a clear and conscientious vote against the motion of the honourable Member for Finsbury; and I conceive that the petitioners will have much less reason to complain of my open hostility than of the conduct of the honourable Member, who tries to propitiate them by consenting to hear their oratory, but has fully made up his mind not to comply with their demands.

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