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Peel's Speech on Parliamentary Reform: 6 July 1831

Peel Speeches

[323] In the third day's debate on the motion for the second reading of the Reform Bill for England and Wales, —

SIR ROBERT PEEL, who was loudly called for, spoke as follows: —

There is one advantage resulting from the present system of representation, which has not been prominently referred to in debate — I mean the advantage of ensuring to the minority its fair influence on the public councils. As this House is at present constituted, no opinion, however unpopular, is excluded; nor can any degree of public excitement and enthusiasm, bar altogether the avenues through which those who are uninfected by the prevailing fear, and are prepared to struggle against the current of popular clamour, can ensure access to the deliberations of Parliament — of that advantage I now avail myself — and as a member of that minority, ridiculed as a despairing: and denounced as an unpopular, minority, I claim the privilege of being heard with attention — a privilege which ought to be conceded with an indulgence proportioned to the comparative smallness of our numbers, and hopelessness of our cause. I am swayed by no motives of self interest to take my present course, — I have no borough to protect — I have contracted no obligation to those who possess that influence which the present measure is intended to destroy, and I am about to resist the wishes of a great and overpowering majority — backed by the support of an united government — and acting in conformity with the supposed opinions and wishes of the king. My opinions therefore — erroneous though they may be — cannot be influenced by considerations of personal or political advantage. While I have been listening to this debate, and have heard the cheers echoed and re-echoed from each side of the House, on the introduction of some topic involving personal allusions, or party criminations, I have more than once lamented that we allowed ourselves to be diverted by matters of such trifling concern, from the mighty subject of our deliberations, and that we forgot, even for a moment, amidst the excitement of party conflict, that we are occupied in the establishment of a new system of representation, involving in its issue the highest and most permanent interests of the country. That is the great question which I wish to discuss, and to which I would willingly confine myself. I rejoice that I did not follow last night the learned member for Calne, that I was not betrayed by the just provocation to bitter and acrimonious reply which that speech afforded, a speech commencing with pious exhortations to forbearance, with solemn inculcations of the necessity of temper and moderation, of the oblivion of all party interests and party resentments, but ending with a bitter philippic against the late administration, and taunts and insinuations directed against individuals who formed a part of it. Let the hon. gentleman select some other occasion for preferring his charges, and he shall then have our defence, and we shall expect some better proof than mere unsupported assertion, that we have been the enemies of public liberty. I never made frothy declamations about liberty, but I deny that any act of mine violated that liberty, or diminished the security of its continued enjoyment. Why did the hon. gentleman, after preaching on the necessity of suspending, at least for the present, all party animosities, and enlarging and exalting our minds to a level with the great question of domestic reform — why did he select this occasion to institute an invidious comparison between the failures of the late, and the success of the present administration? All was confusion and discord under the late government! Under the present, says the hon. gentleman, there is universal tranquillity and contentment. I hope it is so. Painful as the contrast might be, in some respects, to the late government, I shall cordially rejoice if the hon. gentleman can prove, that his compliments to the present are well merited. But, in the absence of that proof, I protest against the justice of the learned gentleman's condemnation. This, and this only, will I state in my own vindication; that during the short period of the last six weeks — since the boasted restoration of tranquillity, long after the day star of reform had glittered above the horizon, many more lives of the king's subjects have been sacrificed in conflicts with the military and police, than were lost during the whole period of six years which I presided over the Home department. I blame not the [324] military nor the police, I blame not those who were compelled by necessity to resort to the last dreadful means of protecting the public peace; but it is too much to expect, with these undeniable and notorious facts, that I should acquiesce in the justice either of the hon. gentleman's satire or his praise. Ireland, too! The hon. gentleman takes credit for the restoration of peace in Ireland. Let him wait a few short days, and he will hear a proposal, founded on the disturbed state of Ireland, for increasing the powers of the government, and adding to the severity of the law. He may then discover, that when he shall be next appointed to chaunt the hymn of triumph over the predecessors of the present government — it will be well for him to omit the strophe which celebrates the tranquillity of Ireland. I turn from topics of this nature, into which I was compelled by the learned gentleman reluctantly to enter — and will confine myself exclusively to the great question before us. I propose to review the main arguments which have been, in the course of this debate, urged in its support, and to attempt the refutation of them when they rest either on unstable foundations of fact — or on conclusions illogically drawn from the premises. I will, in the first place, enumerate the arguments on which the chief stress has been laid — and consider each of those arguments consecutively in the order in which I place them. The main arguments in favour of the bill are these, first, that the time has arrived when we must correct those defects in our representative system, which have arisen from the lapse of time and change of circumstances — when we must abolish practices which are modern abuses, and must, in the terms of the speech from the throne, "resort to the acknowledged principles of the constitution," for the purpose, not of capricious and arbitrary improvement, but of restoring that purer and better system which was originally contemplated, and at a former period actually existed. Secondly, that the House of Commons, as at present constituted, does not practically answer the ends for which alone a popular assembly is established — that it is in arrear of the intelligence of the age — and being less enlightened than the great body of the people, is not their fitting representative. Lastly, that whether theoretically well constituted or not, the House of Commons has lost the confidence of the people — that there is, whether it be rational or not, a demand for reform which cannot be resisted—that the question is one not of choice but of necessity — for that, without reform, the country will not submit to be governed. Before I consider these arguments, I wish to notice one preliminary objection which has been taken to any consideration of reform, in which I cannot entirely concur. It has been urged by some, that the elective franchise, whether corporate or freehold, partakes so much of the nature of property, that it is scarcely within our power to legislate regarding it. If well founded, this argument would dispose of the whole question; but to that extent I cannot concur in it. Whatever the hon. and learned member for Calne may think, I never contended that the elective franchise was of the nature of property. When the cases of Grampound and of Penryn were under consideration, I expressly claimed for parliament the right of taking away the franchise of the minority, if the majority were convicted of an offence which rendered the borough unfit to be trusted with electoral rights — I, who was a party to the disfranchisement of the forty-shilling freeholders of Ireland, could hardly think I was guilty of an act which amounted to a violation of private property. The disfranchisement of the forty-shilling freeholders was a measure necessary, but still greatly to be deprecated; and although I see a clear and palpable distinction between the individual right of an Irish forty-shilling freeholder, and a corporate franchise which has existed for centuries, still, if you establish the same overruling necessity for the forfeiture of the latter trust, I do not deny the competency of parliament to legislate. I must not omit to state, also, that I have on a former occasion admitted the great objection which I felt to any proposition for compensating the holders of borough franchises. I stated, that it appeared to me, that there was the greatest difficulty in the way of pecuniary compensation for the loss of a privilege of this nature; and, in the temper of the present times, it would be exceedingly difficult, I apprehend, to recognise any such principle. While, however, I admit the distinction between private property and the elective franchise, I must also say, that, if you take away this ancient privilege on any other ground than that of overpowering necessity, clearly established, you do shake the public confidence in the security of property itself. On every ground we ought to [325] be most cautious not to interfere, without an urgent necessity, and strictly to limit our interference to that necessity. First, we cannot interfere at all, without shocking those feelings of reverence and affection with which ancient institutions of government are naturally regarded, and which are more powerful than reason itself, in promoting habits of proper obedience and submission to law; and, secondly, by our interference we establish a precedent by which our franchises, which are equally distinguishable from property, may be exposed to hazard. What, let me ask, is the franchise of the peerage? That, too, is a public trust for public objects; and, if you deal lightly with corporate franchises which have endured for ages, for the sake of visionary schemes of speculative improvement you establish a precedent, by which, at no distant period, the franchise of the peerage, and even the prerogative of the Crown, being public trusts, and forfeitable upon similar reasons of supposed public improvement, may be attacked upon the same ground, and for the same reasons. Whilst I admit the distinction, therefore, between those public trusts and private property, I say that we should proceed with the utmost caution, and only upon undeniable proof of overruling necessity; and I rejoiced to hear the hon. and learned member for Calne state, that although he was among the foremost to contend for the taking away these public franchises, yet that none should surpass him in zeal in contending for the sanctity and inviolability of private property of all descriptions. But what is the danger to which that property is exposed? It is not the danger of absolute violence, of a tumultuous insurrection of the poor, in order to seize upon the possessions of the rich. The danger is, that certain descriptions of property, the existence of which is supposed to retard improvement, or to diminish the comforts of the many — may be, if not sacrificed, at least greatly impaired on some such suggestions as those on which we are now called upon to confiscate the elective franchise. We may console ourselves, however, with the reflection, that should such attempts be made, the learned gentleman will be the foremost to resist them; and if, therefore, any person shall be found, holding the situation of chancellor of exchequer who should, in breach of a solemn compact—in contempt of the clearest enactments of parliament, propose the violation of private property, by imposing an exclusive tax on the transfer of that property by the fundholder—I shall remind the learned gentleman of his promise, and rely upon his co-operation in strenuously resisting the robbery. I revert to the consideration of the arguments which I have before enumerated, as the main arguments relied upon in support of the bill. The first is, that there has been a gross encroachment upon popular rights—that nomination boroughs exist in defiance of the acknowledged principles of the constitution, and that we are adhering to those principles, by establishing an uniform system of popular election. This is the argument of the noble lord — I should rather say it was his argument — for nothing can be more marked than the contradiction of the speech of last March, and his speech in the present debate. In March the noble lord contended, that we might revert to some past period of our history, and there discover the universal recognition of the right of free popular election. He quoted the 34th Edward I., the statute de tallagio non concedendo. He attempted to prove, that taxation was illegal without the consent of the whole people, evidenced by popular elections. He said, there was a time when the House of Commons did represent the people of England, meaning, of course, in consequence of the exercise by the people of general suffrage; and his conclusion was, that if the Reform Bill be a question of right, right is in favour of reform. But what says the noble lord now? He assumes a position the very opposite of that which he before assumed, and absolutely cuts from under himself the ground on which he formerly stood. He now denies, that there was ever any uniform practice or right of popular election; he proves that nomination boroughs have always existed; and his argument is, not that there are any acknowledged principles of the constitution to which we can revert — but, on the contrary, that there are no such principles, and because there are none, we are at perfect liberty to make what changes we please, and to consult our own judgment as to the nature and extent of them. Now, let us keep these two questions distinct. It may be no reason for maintaining very limited rights of election, or nomination boroughs, that such things have always existed — but if they have always existed, you are not justified in exasperating the public mind by denouncing them [326] as modern corruptions, and as the recent encroachments of a rapacious oligarchy upon popular liberties and privileges. The noble lord now proves that they have always existed, and I repeat, that by that proof he destroys the foundations of the argument on which he before relied, namely, that he was about to restore a previously existing constitution, and that the people had a right to reform. Nothing can equal the success of the noble lord, in the establishment of his second position, and the consequent destruction of his first. He shows triumphantly, that it is nonsense to talk about the acknowledged principles of the constitution—that our system of representation conforms to no settled rules, but that it is the work of time and accident, and the varying circumstances of society. Says the noble lord, in the speech which he made in this debate — "It will be seen, that during this period there was nothing more irregular or less settled than the right of boroughs to send members to parliament." Now the period to which the noble lord here alluded is a very remote one, for it comprehends, I think he stated, 250 years before the reign of Henry VI. We have got the noble lord's admission, therefore, that for 250 years before the year 1420, nothing could be more unsettled than the system of representation. His second period extends from the reign of Henry VI. to the end of the line of the Tudors, during which period, says the noble lord, it was thought right that there should be some change in the constitution of the House of Commons. Of course we expected to be told, that the changes so made included the return of members for populous, and commercial places. But "no, no," says the noble lord, "it is a striking fact, that the great proportion of the boroughs summoned within this period were not large an prosperous towns, but, on the contrary, a great many of the small boroughs, particularly in Cornwall, were enabled to send burgesses to parliament; and of the total number of places now proposed to be disfranchised, of the fifty-five boroughs referred to in Schedule A, no less than forty-five were, according to the noble lord, created or restored in the reigns of the Tudors.'' The modem doctrines of reform, therefore, were evidently no part of the system of the Tudors, for they selected places to send members, many at least of which were the reverse of flourishing and populous. The noble lord mentioned another circumstance as a remarkable fact. He said, "I mention it as a remarkable fact, that the power of sending members was given to these boroughs by the Tudors, apparently rather with the intention and object, that the members sent should depend upon the Crown, than with any view of enlarging and improving the representation of the country." Well, then, is it not quite clear, from this statement of the noble lord, that these small boroughs are not modern usurpations by the Peers on the rights of the people, but that they did exist at an early period of our history. In confirmation of this position of the noble lord, I may refer to a very learned writer upon the constitution of this country, and one free from the possibility of any imputation of partiality — I mean Mr. Hallam, who, like the great majority of the literary community, is decidedly opposed to the present bill. Mr. Hallam says, that sixty- two members were added, at different times, for petty boroughs — that those members were under the influence of the Crown; and be adds, that "ministers took much pains with the elections for those boroughs; of which many proofs remain." Does not all this show, that the mode of conducting public business in this country in former times was not by the operation of three independent checks upon each other — the King, the Lords, and the Commons; but that at an early period the administration of affairs was carried on by a House of Commons in which both the Crown, and members of the House of Peers, exercised considerable influence — I say not whether it be right or wrong, that that influence should have existed. I am not arguing, that because it existed, therefore it must continue; but for this I do contend — that the fact of the existence of the influence cannot be denied; and that for the last 400 years the small boroughs have formed a part of the representative system. But it may be said, true, these places existed in former times, but they have decayed, and were anciently much more populous than they are at present. Now this is not the fact; many of those boroughs are as large now as they ever were. With all his research on this subject, does not the noble lord know what appears with respect to Gatton, on the indisputable authority of the Harleian and Lansdowne manuscripts? In the reign of Elizabeth, Mr. Copley used to nominate the members for Gatton, in default of electors, the proprietor being a minor, and in the custody of the court of [327] Wards. We find too, that Lord Burleigh directed the sheriff to make no return from Gatton without instructions from himself; the instructions were, that the sheriff should cancel the return containing the name of Mr. Francis Bacon, and substitute that of Mr. Edward Brown, there being then no burgesses existing. Finding no precedents for this bill before the reign of Henry VI., and none in the reigns of either the Tudors or the Stuarts — the noble lord, with not very becoming exaltation, relies on the authority of Cromwell. Cromwell effected a reform in the House of Commons, which received, says the noble lord, the sanction of Lord Clarendon. But does the noble lord recollect, that before Cromwell reformed the Commons, he had abolished the Lords? and does it follow, that the democratic assembly constituted by Cromwell after the extinction of monarchy, and after the abolition of the House of Lords, is a happy model for a House of Commons which is to co-exist with a limited monarchy, and with a House of Lords possessing co-ordinate authority? Perhaps, if Cromwell had so to constitute his reformed House of Commons that it should not usurp the functions of the other branches of the legislature, he might have been a more prudent and moderate reformer than the noble lord. There is, at least, among the panegyrics lavished on him by his admirers, one by Waller, which praises him for the caution with which be effected great improvements in the state, through the means of gradual and almost insensible change.

"Still as you rise, the State, exalted too,
Feels no disorder when 'tis changed by you:
Changed like the world's great scene, when without noise,
The rising sun night's vulgar lights destroys."

But, said the noble lord, we have the authority of Lord Clarendon in favour of that reform, forgetting that Lord Clarendon was not then speaking his own opinion, but merely referring to a prevailing sentiment as to the changes made by Cromwell. I advise new members to distrust nothing more than quotations. When I hear Bacon or Burke, or any other great authority cited, I know that sometimes in the next page, and more frequently in the same, a passage might be found, which, if taken separate might be relied upon as an authority for opposite doctrines. See, in this case, what is the real value of Lord Clarendon's sanction of Cromwell's reform. When Lord Clarendon comes to speak his own sentiments, we shall find he was not quite so complimentary. There were two parliaments summoned by the protector, founded on his new basis: the first sat for a few months, and, as will be the case with many reformed parliaments hereafter, I fear, did nothing. Lord Clarendon remarks of it, that "it spent its time in long debates and wrangling discourses." Cromwell dissolved it in seven months, and called another parliament on the same principle, which lasted only three months; and when Lord Clarendon, who, according to the noble lord, is the greatest panegyrist of that reform, comes to speak of it in his own, he uses these expressions: — "The parliament did not re-assemble with the same temper and resignation with which it parted." "It quickly appeared how insecure new institutions are; and when the contrivers of them have provided, as they think, against all mischievous contingencies, they find they have unwarily left a gap open to let their destruction in upon them." Such is the opinion of the philosophic historian, when speaking his own sentiments upon Cromwell's notable reform. I have then, at least, as much right to claim Lord Clarendon as an authority against reform, as this noble lord can have to rely upon him as an authority in its favour. I think I have said enough on the first branch of the argument, and have, with the aid of the noble lord, proved, that the projected reform is not a restoration of the constitution; and that the House of Commons, as it now exists, is not a novelty and an usurpation. I approach now the second argument, which is in substance this — that whether the House of Commons as it at present exists, be or be not a novelty or an usurpation, still, that time has effected such changes in the fabric of society, that there must be corresponding changes in the form and mode of government; that nomination boroughs are odious to the people, that their existence is absurd in theory and pernicious in practice, and that you must widen the basis on which representation is hereafter to be founded, to the full extent proposed by this bill. Now I ask two questions connected with this point: first, where is the form of government ever existing, which has provided such security for the possession of property, and the enjoyment of rational freedom, as [328] that which you are about to disturb in one of its essential elements, viz. the constitution of the House of Commons; and secondly, what proof have you in the history of any country, that a popular assembly, formed on the principle of that uniform right of voting which you are about to establish, has practically co-existed with a monarchy and with an aristocratical body, with powers and functions like the House of Peers. It is only now, since the Revolution of July, that France is about to make a similar experiment. At no former period since the downfall of her absolute monarchy, has there been a Chamber of Deputies directly returned by an individual right of voting. Up to this time, as was truly said by the noble lord, the member for Wootton Basset, (Lord Porchester) in the ablest first speech which I ever heard delivered, there have been breakwaters against the vehemence of popular opinion. When the national assembly was constituted, it was not returned on any such principle as that of uniform and equal right of voting. A complicated system of election was devised, founded on three bases — geographical, arithmetical and financial, the basis of territory, the basis of population, and the basis of contribution. The assumption of such basis may have been an absurd one; but two out of the three bases were nevertheless assumed, for the express purpose of controlling popular opinion, and of preventing intelligence and property from being overwhelmed by numbers. How can you hope permanently to preserve the free action of two such authorities in the State, as a limited monarchy and an hereditary peerage, if you make the popular assembly the immediate uncontrolled organ of the public will; if you devise no means by which property can exercise a proportionate influence in the election of that popular assembly, but give an equal right to the poorest class of electors, with that you give to the most wealthy? What is the result of this first experiment made by France, of that principle on which we are about to act? France has very recently adopted it — what is the consequence? Why, that the men who headed the Revolution of last July are already become unpopular; their doctrines are too moderate for those of the present constituent body; and in almost every election, they struggle with difficulty against men avowing more democratic and republican opinions. And yet, with this example before us, we are pressed at this moment to adopt the same system as that adopted by France — the same in respect to its uniformity, but much more popular and extensive in respect to the numbers by which the right of voting is to be exercised. It is triumphantly asked, will you not trust the people of England? Do you charge them with disaffection to the monarchy and to the constitution under which they live? I answer, that without imputing disaffection to the people, or a deliberate intention on their part to undermine the monarchy, or destroy the peerage, my belief is, that neither the monarchy nor the peerage can resist with effect the decrees of a House of Commons that is immediately obedient to every popular impulse, and that professes to speak the popular will; and that all the tendencies of such an assembly are towards the increase of its own power, and the intolerance of any extrinsic control. Among the great majority to whom I find myself reluctantly opposed, I cannot help thinking that there are many who, as the excitement is subsiding, are casting a longing, lingering look behind, at the ancient institutions of their country, and doubting whether or no there is any such paramount necessity to justify as in incurring the danger of this immense change. I heard, the other night, a quotation from Cicero, made use of by a right hon. member whom I do not now see in his place (Sir James Mackintosh). That hon. member, in the course of a very long and very animated speech, did me the honour, in quoting the opinion of Cicero, in favour of making accessions to the popular power, to suppose that I might have been familiar with it. I did think, notwithstanding that my classical recollections are impaired somewhat by political occupations and public duties—I did think that there were, in the admirable treatise from which that quotation was extracted, some other expressions of a totally different character — some splendid lessons with respect to the principle of changes in established governments, from which, even now, after the lapse of so many centuries, we may derive benefit. I was pleased to see the hon. member drawing political knowledge from a mine so richly stored — I was pleased to see him shedding a light upon our discussions, which he drew from so bright a fount. I repeat with respect to himself, that generous wish which he expressed with regard to Mr. Burke: — "Long may those studies be the solace of virtuous and venerable [329] age." The right hon. member will excuse me if I refer to that very treatise, ay, and to some expressions immediately preceding the very passage he quoted, and attempt to extract from the writings of Cicero a salutary caution. They contain a tempered and very dignified reproof of the haste in which changes in forms of government are sometimes determined on. Cicero condemns the injustice of looking only to one side of the question, and observes to Quintus: — "Vitia quidem tribunatûs præclare Quinte, perspicis. Sed est iniqua in omni re accusanda, prætermissis bonis, malorum enumeratio, vitiorumque selectio." Now, Sir, let me comment upon that text. Cicero, it seems, was not for condemning institutions rashly, nor was he an advocate for an enumeration of the faults, prætermissis bonis, of any form of government. "Nam isto quidem modo," he continues, "vel consulatus vituperabilis est, si consulum, quos enumerare nolo, peccata collegeris." Yes, says Cicero, if you adopt this course, no institution will be safe. So I say in the present instance, with respect to the small boroughs and the influence of the peerage: who can doubt that if the government will join with the press in condemning them, unlearned minds — minds unacquainted with the real fact — should madly adopt the censure; nay more, if the absurdity of hereditary legislation should be asserted; if it should be denied, that this prerogative is justly exercised by men who inherit the right from their fathers, without any necessity of personal qualification on their part, a ready assent will be given to such doctrines. More just is the calm observation of Cicero: — "Ego enim fateor in ista ipsa potentate inesse quiddam mali. Sed bonum quod est quæsitum in ea sine isto malo non haberemus." I cannot defend the sale of boroughs — I am not ignorant of the exercise of absolute nomination, yet I am not certain that it will be possible to eradicate these defects, without depriving the country of good that more than counterbalances the evil. Let us act, Sir, upon these maxims of caution; and not, in our too great eagerness to eradicate defects, upset the constitution, which has ensured to the country more happiness and more liberty than any other has ever enjoyed. The learned member opposite (Mr. Macaulay) has contended that the House of Commons is unfit for the purposes for which it is intended. He asserts, that we have consulted the interest of the tax-consumer before that of the tax-payer — that we are in arrear of the intelligence of the age — and, being undeserving of the representative character, that we must submit to extensive reformation. But, Sir, I deny the fact — I deny that the House of Commons, as at present constituted, neglects its duty, or has become incompetent to perform the functions of a legislative assembly — I deny that it is in arrear of the intelligence of the age; and if I do not prove, to the perfect satisfaction of every unprejudiced mind, that the specific charges brought by the learned member against the conduct of the House, are utterly unfounded, I will consent to abandon the whole of the case at once, and go to the second reading of the bill. The first charge is, that we have not laid taxes upon property, but have imposed them upon articles of consumption which press upon the poor. But what were the circumstances under which the Property Tax was removed at the close of the last war? The government was desirous of maintaining that tax — they did, in fact, all in their power to maintain it; but in spite of every effort, it was removed by this House, in consequence of the petitions of the people, demanding its repeal, and charging the House with gross neglect of its duty if that tax were suffered to exist. No less than 400 petitions were presented to the House, to induce it to take off that tax, and, in consequence of those petitions, it was removed. What was the motive for the repeal of the beer duty? Did that repeal show indifference to the comfort of the poor? The complaint is, that we acted too precipitately in the repeal of the duty; and that, in our eagerness to promote the present comfort and enjoyment of the poor, we have overlooked the checks on intemperance and immorality. What pretence is there for saying, that the House is in arrear of the intelligence of the age? Is that charge supported by the conduct of this House on the question of the currency? Or was this House in arrear of the intelligence of the age, when it passed those laws of commercial intercourse introduced by Mr. Huskisson? If the House of Commons had been a reformed House, elected as now proposed, is there any one who believes that those laws could have been enacted? The Catholic question, again, showed that the House of Commons, in consenting to remove the Catholic disabilities, was not in arrear of the intelligence of the age; and [330] I ask again, if the new House of Commons had existed at the time of the passing of that bill, whether there is a chance that it would have been carried? In that pamphlet which has been so often quoted — Friendly Advice to the Lords — it is admitted, that the Catholic disabilities were removed against the opinions and wishes of the great majority of the people, of the majority of that very class of voters which you are now about to create. Again, the test and corporation acts were repealed against the wishes of the people. [No, no.] Well, I will not rely upon that fact; but at least the Catholic disabilities were. That measure is admitted on all hands to have been passed contrary to the opinions and feelings of a great majority of the people. And if this be the fact, it is rather hard at one time to charge the House of Commons with exceeding the liberality of the people, and acting in contradiction to their feelings and opinions, and at another to represent it as less enlightened and less liberal than the people, and to urge such contradictory statements as grounds for a reform; and the learned gentleman says, that the country has been governed so well, that we must have a House of Commons capable of governing it better. This sentiment has met with the applause of the other side of the House, and on it they would build such great and dangerous innovations. It amounts to this, that without parliamentary reform, for the space of 400 years, there has been so elastic a principle of improvement in the government, such a power of accommodating itself to the spirit of the age, and to the circumstances of the people, that this country has been governed better than any other country on earth has ever been governed. Having effected all this, it becomes necessary to do — what? I should have thought, to adhere to a system which had produced such immense benefits; but no — the inference is the very reverse; in these days of illumination, the just conclusion is, that you ought to upset and destroy that system altogether. The member for Calne says, that looking through the whole habitable world, contemplating society as it now exists in every quarter of the globe, nay that ever since civil institutions have been formed by man, he cannot find any society so perfect as that of England, so far as concerns the development of intellect, the improvement of science, the cultivation of the land, the enjoyment of liberty, or the protection of property. But, adds the hon. gentleman, although all this be true, there are certain defects, which are of such a nature and extent as completely to justify a total change in the representative system. And what are these great defects which require the hazarding of every blessing, for the chance of correcting them? Why, first, there is the state of the penal code; next, the bottomless pit of chancery; and thirdly, in this flourishing and happy country, a new system of representation is necessary, because there is a cumbrous legal process of fines and recoveries. Oh, Sir, I am sick of the miserable pedantry which urges, that in consequence of such petty defects the great advantages of our state of society are to be forfeited; the more miserable, since all these defects the House is not only competent, but has repeatedly manifested its anxiety to remove. If the hon. gentleman can show, that this is not the case — if he can show that the House of Commons, as it is now constituted, is unable to apply adequate remedies to evils of such a nature, then I will confess, that the House stands in need of a reform. But how absurd it is to say, here is a constitution which has given the people every blessing of civil government, but yet cannot remove a few evils which may exist in subordinate institutions. But do I rest here? No. I will prove that these evils being admitted in their fullest extent, you have a better prospect of their remedy by the present House of Commons than you have by a reformed one. What can your new constituency — the £10 householders, know of reforms in the court of chancery — or of your defective system of fines and recoveries? I am sure that if I were to ask a given number of them what fines and recoveries meant, the majority would answer, that a fine was a pecuniary penalty, and recovery a state of convalescence. What was the mode by which the advocates for reforming all such abuses found their way into this House? Did not Sir Samuel Romilly sit in parliament for a close borough? Does not the learned gentleman himself find his way into this House by a similar avenue? And did not Lord Chancellor Brougham sit for a close borough? In fact, the close boroughs may be said to have generated the reformers. But what pretence is there for charging the House of Commons collectively with indifference to the reform of these specific abuses? By whom was the bill of Lord [331] Lyndhurst rejected? By the House of Commons. On what ground? Because the House was determined to have a more searching and extensive reform of the court of chancery. By whom was the first blow struck against fines and recoveries? By the House of Commons — and at this moment we have bills before us, originating in an address from this House to the throne, for the absolute destruction of those very fines and recoveries. Then with respect to the penal code; this House has shown a disposition to mitigate its severity. With respect to forgery, I introduced a bill remitting the punishment of death in certain cases. The House was not satisfied, but remitted that punishment much more extensively; and though the bill did not ultimately pass in that shape, it was not this House, but the House of Lords, which restored the punishment. The House of Commons rejected the advice of his Majesty's ministers. It resisted their influence and insisted upon repealing the punishment of death for the crime of forgery. Why, then, if the arguments of the learned gentleman have any weight, they prove that the reform should take place in the House of Lords. It is they who have defeated the benevolent intentions of the House of Commons, and yet we are proposing to reform not the House of Lords, but the House of Commons, which, in all the instances to which I have referred, has shown that it is neither behind the intelligence of the age, nor neglectful of the complaints of the people. I say, then, Sir, that the alleged reason for change in this House is utterly destroyed. I will now say a few words with respect to the bill itself. It may be said to contain two great principles; the first is the principle of disfranchisement; the second is that of constituting a new representation. Four times have there been essential alterations made in the bill; and although we see held out the phantom of the £10 right of voting, yet four times has that very matter been subjected to changes, and to changes so important, that my confidence must not be asked for those who have felt it necessary to make them. At first the right of voting was given to resident £10 householders, and residence was insisted on as a necessary qualification for the franchise. Now mark the alteration which has been made. What is the effect in Manchester? It altered the constituency of that place so much, that instead of giving the right of voting to resident £10 householders, by a little alteration, the great principle of residence is thrown overboard — it is overpowered by non-resident occupiers of warehouses and counting-houses, and thus the original ground of residence is cut away, as forming the condition of qualification. And then, Sir, what is the effect of the change that has last been made? When gentlemen are asked to support this bill, it is in vain to attempt to conceal the fact from men equally informed and intelligent with ourselves, whose interests and feelings are so deeply affected, that these changes are making alterations by tens of thousands in the numbers of the constituency of the country. I know this may be called mere inadvertency; but really, Sir, if through the inadvertency of his Majesty's government, these changes can be made in a bill, affecting not less than 100,000 people, let me say, the time is not yet come when we can maturely deliberate upon so grave a matter: we are not yet in a condition to legislate at all upon it, and least of all will this House stand excused in hastily passing a law which is brought before us under such circumstances. The projectors of this bill, after having established the £10 franchise, come forward with subsequent alterations which totally alter the character of the constituency. As the bill now stands, every £10 householder is disqualified who pays his rent more frequently then half-yearly. The bill originally gave the right to the weekly and the quarterly tenant. By confining it to the tenant paying half-yearly, you disfranchise many thousand voters in places that I could name. In Birmingham there is a very numerous class of persons who pay rents of 8s.10d. or 4s. per week, which amount, of course, to £10 a year. By the simple insertion of the words quarterly payments or half-yearly payments, I care not which, there is no use in concealing the fact, the number of such voters would be reduced by many thousands. Why raise expectations so inconsiderately, and defeat them with equal precipitation? What avails it to say that you have acted inadvertently. That you have been administering prussic acid — and that you forgot to look at the prescription. You have made another, and a most important change. You have by this new bill admitted land into the value of the £10 holding. It seems a simple and easy matter to insert "land," but will any man deny, that this is a most important change? Without saying whether these changes are good or bad, I do say that [332] these facts destroy my confidence in the ability of his Majesty's government to conduct such a question to a salutary and happy conclusion. I hope, that hon. gentlemen will consider the effect of the alteration made by the insertion of the word "land" upon our rural economy. If one thing more than another would tend to improve the condition of the peasantry, it is the attaching of small gardens to the tenements they occupy. Now, by making the possession of land with a house a qualification, we encourage landlords to take away those small gardens where they are now enjoyed, and to withhold the possession of them when otherwise the possession might be conferred. It may be said, that landlords will not be influenced by this consideration, and I know that they ought not, but I contend, that the policy and the principle of that law must be bad which tends to sacrifice the improvement of the condition of the peasantry to electioneering interests. These are the main grounds on which I oppose the second reading of this bill. The hon. member who spoke last, expressed his hope that I was prepared to bring forward some scheme of reform, and has taunted me with being at length a reformer. But what did I say in the last session respecting reform? I said, that having left one government in consequence of its resistance to reform, and another government having been formed pledged to reform, I would, rather than risk a change of government — seeing the impossibility of constituting an administration opposed to reform — support a measure of reform introduced by my opponents, provided that measure were perfectly consistent with the safety of the institutions of the country. I said, I might be wrong or I might be right, but that is the extent of the declaration I made, and which I am prepared to make again. I have been uniformly opposed to reform upon principle, because I was unwilling to open a door which I saw no prospect of being able to close; it was not because I thought that the transfer of the franchise from East Retford to Manchester might be in itself injurious, but because I was of opinion that a government which should unsettle the minds of the people upon this subject, would be responsible for the consequences that must result. I certainly was one of those who opposed the giving representatives to Manchester, and to other large towns; because I thought the advantage of such a measure not sufficient to counterbalance the evil of altering the constitution of parliament, and agitating the public mind on the question of reform. And if it be truly said, that the demand for reform has been a steadily increasing demand, if it be the fact that nothing short of this bill will give the least satisfaction, surely I was justified in doubting whether the grant of members to three or four large towns would stay the public appetite for reform, and whether it would not prove the commencement, rather than the close, of the discussion. I do not admit, however, that the settled opinion of this country is fixed, and permanently decided, in favour of this bill. I would advise those who assert it, not to rely too confidently on the duration of the present excitement; to bear in mind the causes which have combined to foment it — and to consider whether they are of lasting operation. Our sober judgment has been disturbed by the recent events in France, by sympathy in the triumph of liberal opinions, and by a natural indignation at the illegal exercise of authority. While those feelings are at their height—a government is formed pledged to reform, and they redeem that pledge by a more extensive measure of reform than was expected by the most sanguine reformer. They dissolve the parliament in order to take the opinion of an already excited people, on a question of all others the most requiring sober and dispassionate inquiry, and they superadd to every other cause of agitation, an appeal to the personal wishes and opinions of the king. With regard to the dissolution of the parliament, it might be right or it might be wrong, but nothing could be more unwise than to countenance the popular belief, that the king was personally interested in the question of reform. I do not for a moment call in question the undoubted prerogative of the Crown to dissolve the late parliament, but I do call in question the prudence with which that prerogative was exercised, the time and mode of its exercise, and above all, the lavish use of his Majesty's name and authority, with the view of influencing election contests. I regret, most deeply, that through their organs of the press, the government condescended to the humiliation of propagating tales which could only be addressed and suited to the lowest and most vulgar class of minds. I regret most deeply that they should, for any purpose whatever, have resorted to the dangerous expedient of teaching the people to associate [333] loyalty to their king with hostility to the constitution of parliament. I do not think it a happy circumstance that the feelings of the people have been thus excited; I doubt the existence of an unanimous feeling as connected with this measure on their part; and I deeply regret that the sober and temperate judgment of the people has been disturbed by a variety of causes. But, Sir, if this feeling be such as we have heard it represented, and if it shall permanently endure, I am then ready to admit, that no government can go on without enacting such measures as shall alleviate and remove that intense feeling. But all I ask is, time for deliberation upon a question of such vital importance; I say, do not rely upon this temporary excitement — do not allow that to be your only guide — do not force this Reform Bill upon the country, upon the assumption that the unanimous voice of the people demands it. I doubt the existence of any such ground; and if you do find hereafter that you have been mistaken — if you find that the people have only been acting under an excitement produced by temporary causes — if they are already sobering down from their enthusiasm for the days of July, let the House remember, that when the steady good sense and reason of the people of England shall return, they will be the first to reproach us with the baseness of having sacrificed the constitution in the vain hope of conciliating the favour of a temporary burst of popular feeling; they will be the first to blame us for deferring this question to popular opinion, instead of acting upon our own judgment. For my own part, not seeing the necessity for this reform, doubting much whether the demand for reform is so urgent, and doubting still more whether, if carried, this measure can be a permanent one, I give my conscientious opposition to this bill. In doing this, I feel the more confident, because the bill does not fulfil the conditions recommended from the throne — because it is not founded on the acknowledged principles of the constitution — because it does not give security to the prerogatives of the Crown — because it does not guarantee the legitimate rights, influences, and privileges of both Houses of Parliament — because it is not calculated to render secure and permanent the happiness and prosperity of the people — and above all, because it subverts a system of government which has combined security to personal liberty, and protection to property, with vigour in the executive power of the State, in a more perfect degree than ever existed in any age, or in any ether country of the world.

At the close of the debate the House divided; for the second reading, 367; against it, 281; majority, 136.

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