« AnteriorContinuar »
they attributed all which he did to the influence of the proprietor of his seat; and if there chanced to be an apparent difference of opinion, they were more disposed to attribute some sinister design to the owner of the borough than any substantial independence to the member for it. The votes of a nominated member were not regarded as his own, even when in fact they were so. As we might expect, persons of high character and sensitive nature shrank from this dependence. They could not endure that it should be said that they had no control over the course which they adopted in politics; the possibility of the supposition that they must vote according to the edict of some one else was nearly as odious as the having so to vote. A curious example of this inevitable tendency in men of high and susceptible natures may be found in the life of Sir Samuel Romilly : he avowedly preferred the purchase of a seat to a position in which he might be imagined to be dependent; he preferred to be the member for a borough which was publicly known to be commonly venal, to being the member for a borough of which a nobleman or gentleman who took a genuine interest in politics was the proprietor; he preferred its being known that he had bought his seat, to the possibility of a suspicion that he held it upon a tenure of base service. In very many cases which cannot now be known by us, an analogous feeling must have prevented shrinking and delicate men from occupying the seats for rotten boroughs, or from associating with the great noblemen who owned them. Aristocratic patronage is never very pleasant to men of this character; and it is unendurable to them that such patronage should be the basis of their career and an essential prerequisite to [their*] habitual life. Exceptional instances apart, the close boroughs were rather an obstruction than an opening to persons of original minds and delicate dispositions.
Nor was it natural that the owners of boroughs should commonly desire to introduce such men. If these proprietors had views of their own, they selected men who would give effect to those views; and these would ordinarily be men of pliant characters and unsuggestive intellects. If such proprietors had no opinion, they ordinarily put the seat up to auction in the market and got as much money as they could get for it.
* Review, better. – ED.
Nor, in the few cases in which noblemen introduced men of the highest order of minds into Parliament, and in which they treated them with tenderness and delicacy, were they by any means disposed to admit them to an equality with themselves or with the near connections of great families. They reserved high office as much as possible for themselves, and for those who mingled by right of birth in their own society; and believed that they had done much in giving the opportunity of a public career and the profit of a minor place to able men of humbler station whom they had brought into the House of Com
The Rockingham party, the best party that ever was composed of the associated proprietors of close boroughs, thus treated Mr. Burke, who was the greatest man who ever sat for a close borough. We cannot but be indignant at such conduct; we cannot help saying that it showed high-bred exclusiveness and aristocratic narrowness of mind: but we also cannot help perceiving that it was natural. The same thing would be sure to happen again in any similar circumstances. The owners of seats inevitably believed that they were theirs; that they, and that men of their family and their station, had an evident right to enjoy whatever was most desirable in the consequences of them : they believed that they had a right to their own and to all it produced. Historians may lament that Lord John Cavendish was preferred to Mr. Burke; but if the old system of representation were once more established, a similar phenomenon would happen again, — the near connections of the large proprietors of parliamentary property would again be preferred by those proprietors to all others.
The universal tendencies of human nature insure that it should be so.
On the other hand, although the close boroughs did not aid men of able minds and sensitive natures in the entrance to public life, they did aid men of able minds and coarse natures. The latter were willing to be dependents and were able to be serviceable dependents; they were inclined to be slaves and were able to be useful slaves. The pecuniary profits derivable from a public career, the places and pensions open to and readily obtainable by an able public man, brought a large number of such men into Parliament. We need not cite many instances, for the fact is evident: the entire history of the last century is full of such men as Mr. Rigby, as the first Lord Holland, as Bubb Dodington. The suspicion of dependence and the reality of aristocratic patronage were easily endured by men of covetous dispositions and vulgar characters: they only desired to have as much as possible of whatever profits were obtainable; and whatsoever the path to great profits might be, that was the road for them. And independently of these extreme cases, the close boroughs tended to fill the House of Commons with men of commonplace opinions and yielding characters, who accepted the creed of their patrons very easily, and without - in all ordinary cases - any conscious suppression of their own; their preferences were so languid that they were not conscious of relinquishing them. The facile flexibility of decorous mediocrity is one of the most obvious facts of human nature; and it is one of the most valuable facts, for without it the requisite union of great political parties would scarcely be attainable.
Such and so great seem to us the deductions which are to be made from the common belief that the close boroughs tended to open the House of Commons to men of original minds and refined dispositions. They are so great as to make it dubious whether that observation has even a nucleus of truth; they
indisputably show that in its ordinary form it is an extreme exaggeration, and they suggest a doubt whether as much or more may not be said for the very opposite of it.
We have now, therefore, completed our long investigation. We have inquired whether our old system of parliamentary representation did or did not give us a Parliament substantially accordant with the true public opinion of the English nation; whether it gave to all classes who had political ideas to express, the means of expressing them; (whether it had any peculiar tendency to insure to us a succession of strong administrations ;*] whether it had any peculiar tendency to produce great and original statesmen. What, then, are the results which we have learned from this investigation ? What are the lessons which this remarkable history, when it is examined, tends to teach us?
First, we should learn from it to distrust complicated expedients for making strong administrations, and refined expedients for producing wise and able statesmen. The sole security upon which we can depend for a strong government is a consistent union in the nation: if we have that, we shall have a strong government under any tolerable parliamentary system; and if we have not that, we shall not have under any a really strong government on ordinary occasions. The true security for having a sufficient supply of good statesmen is to maintain a sufficient supply of good constituencies. We need not regret the rotten boroughs, if we have instead of them an adequate number of tolerably educated and not too numerous constituencies, in which the great majority of the voters are reasonably independent and tolerably incorrupt. There is nothing in either of these two respects very valuable in our old system of representation: it did not secure to us an unusual number of coherent and powerful administrations; it did not of itself give us an exceptionally great number of able and honest statesmen.
*Review; its omission in the reprint is probably a printer's error. – ED.
Secondly, we should learn from the history of the last century that it is perfectly idle to attempt to give political power to persons who have no political capacity, who are not intellectual enough to form opinions or who are not high-minded enough to act on those opinions. This proposition is admitted in words, - everybody says it is a truism; but is it admitted in reality? Do not all the ordinary plans for a uniform extension of the suffrage practically deny it? Will not their inevitable effect be, in the smaller and poorer boroughs at least, to throw or to attempt to throw much power into the hands of the voters who are sure to be ignorant, and who are almost sure to be corrupt?
Lastly, the events of the earlier part of the last century show us— demonstrate, we may say, to usthe necessity of retaining a very great share of power in the hands of the wealthier and more instructed classes, of the real rulers of public opinion. We have seen that we owe the security of our present constitutional freedom to the possession by these classes of
We have learned that under a more democratic system the house of Stuart might have been still upon the throne, - that the will of the numerical majority in the nation would probably have placed it there and would probably have kept it there; that the close boroughs of former times gave, in an indirect form and in an objectionable manner, the requisite influence to the instructed classes: and we must infer, therefore, that we should be very cautious how we now proceed to found a new system without any equivalent provision, and with no counterbalancing weight to the scanty intelligence of very ordinary persons and to the unbridled passions of the multitude.
If we duly estimate the significance of these conclusions, we shall perhaps think that to have been once