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our experience with respect to it is therefore scanty and limited. The Continental nations which have made trial of representative government have done so almost always under exceptional circumstances, and in each case the national character of the particular nation which made the trial has very greatly affected the result of it. The experience of America is, from many causes, difficult to apply to the times in which we live: the difference of circumstances, both economical and social, is a perpetually modifying force which tends to make a sweeping deduction almost necessarily unsound. The contrast between a new country and an old, between a state in which there is an endowed church and a landed aristocracy and one in which there is neither, between a society in which slavery exists and one in which it does not, is too great to be unimportant and too pervading to be eliminated. Nor is it easy to derive effectual instruction from the working of the system which is in operation now; at least it is difficult to derive instruction which others will think satisfactory. We may and do make out points sufficiently clearly to ourselves; but in the heat of controversy and in the confusion of contemporary events, others in fact derive from the same data the contrary deductions. We are therefore thrown back on our own history for such instruction as it may give us; and the break made by the Reform Act of 1832 is at least in this respect useful. We can draw lessons from the times preceding it with the calmness of history, and nevertheless those times may yield us instruction. They are far enough from our own age to be dispassionately considered ; they resemble it enough to suggest analogies for our guidance. Nor is this history in itself uninteresting : the unreformed system of representative government is that which lasted the longest, which was contemporary with the greatest events, which has developed the greatest orators and which has trained the most remarkable statesmen. No apology, therefore, seems to be needed for writing upon the subject at present, even if we should write at some length.
To give an exact account of the old English system of representation is, however, no easy task. At present the statistical information which we possess respecting the electoral system which exists is exceedingly abundant: we can tell the number of voters in every borough and every county; we know by what right of suffrage they are entitled to vote, and how many of them have chosen in any case to exercise their right at each successive election. Compendious works specify what lord or commoner has influence in such or such a town; they say whether it is preponderant and all-powerful, or only moderate and sometimes resisted: they tell us in which town money has overwhelming influence, and enumerate the occasions upon which the use of that influence has been proved before the proper tribunal. We can hardly hope to obtain better information as to the actual working of a system than that which we have as to the system under which we are living. A hundred years ago our ancestors were nearly destitute of all such information. They had no means of telling the number of voters in any borough or county; no register existed from which it could be discovered. The right of voting in different places was exceedingly different, and the decisions of the House of Commons respecting them had been very confused. From political motives, indeed, these decisions were often contradictory; they were made to suit the requirements of the moment and the commands of the minister of the day, and a judicial spirit was, while the decision lay with a committee of the whole House of Commons, scarcely even affected. Sir Robert Walpole used to say that in election committees there ought to be "no quarter"; and the final fate of his long administration was determined by a division on an election petition from Chippenham. As the deciding power respecting electoral rights was so inconsistent, it would perhaps hardly have been worth while to collect its decisions; and no one did so. A hundred years ago the constant reference to precise numerical data which distinguishes our present discussions was by no means in use; and even if the number of the electoral body had been more easy of ascertainment, no one probably would have ascertained it. The government had not yet established a census of its subjects, and would not perhaps have liked to have the voters who chose it counted; at any rate no one did count them, and a very general notion respecting the practical working of our representative system was all which could be formed at the time, or that can be formed now.
The representation of England and Wales was formerly, as now, in the hands of counties and boroughs. The number of counties was the same as it now is; but they were as yet undivided for the purposes of representation. The number of boroughs was very considerable, and this of itself led to difficulty.
It is evident that in early times, when population was small and trade scanty, it would be difficult to find very many boroughs that would be fit to elect proper members of Parliament. We know by trial that a town constituency, to be pure and to be independent, must be of fair size and must contain a considerable number of better-class inhabitants : unless it be so, it will assuredly succumb to one of two dangers, - it will fall under the yoke of some proprietor who will purchase the place as a whole, or it will be purchased vote by vote at each election. Nothing, both experience and theory explain to us, is so futile as to expect continued purity and continued independence from a small number of persons who have something valuable to sell, and who would gain what is an object to them by selling it. But of considerable towns the number was once exceedingly few. Internal commerce and foreign trade have made such enormous strides in England recently that we hardly realize the poverty of former times, or the small number of people who lived where we live now. Statistics, though they may give us a statement of the fact, do not and cannot fill our imaginations with it. We may get a better notion of what England was in numbers and wealth from traveling in the purely agricultural — the less advanced and poorer - parts of the Continent than we can from figures and books. We shall in that way gain a vivid impression that it would be impossible, in a rude age and country, to find a very great number of towns large enough to elect representatives independently and rich enough to elect them uncorruptly.
In the system which prevailed a hundred and fifty years ago our ancestors had much aggravated this difficulty: they had not selected the most considerable towns to be parliamentary constituencies; they had not taken all the largest, and they had taken several of the smallest. We need not now explain why this happened: we have no room to discuss the antiquities of the old boroughs. We cannot tell in many cases why some were chosen which were chosen. But two facts are incontestable; of which one is, that there was probably much original caprice in the selection of town constituencies. The sheriff had at first a certain discretionary power, and we do not know very precisely how he exercised it. The boroughs themselves were anxious, not to obtain the right but to evade the obligation of sending members to Parliament. Provided a respectable number of borough members appeared in their places to assent to the requisite taxes, and to indicate by their demeanor if not by their votes the popular feeling on the topics of the day, the early rulers of England — those rulers who laid the foundations of our representative system — were satisfied; they felt no nice scruples as to the exact magnitude of the towns which did not send members or of those which did so. In the times of the Tudors and a little later, the Crown exercised its prerogative of creating new boroughs; and as the popular spirit had then begun to be a subject of dread, and the voice of the House of Commons was already of some importance, we need not hesitate to imagine that the statesmen of the time regarded the “loyalty” or subservience of the boroughs they created, rather than their precise size. English statesmen look to the wants of the day, and especially to the wants of their own administration, much more than to complex figures: they do so even at the present day, when statistical tables will be paraded against them; how much more did they not improbably do so in the reigns of the Tudors, when there was no check upon them in any matter requiring much research or information; when, if they chose to disregard numerical data, no one else could know, far less prove, that they had done so! Nor was original caprice the only cause that had given representatives to many boroughs which in the eighteenth century seemed scarcely fit to choose them, and which denied them to others which appeared to be much more fit. In the contest between the Stuarts and the people, the Crown lost its old prerogative of creating boroughs. The moment there was a contest between the House of Commons and the sovereign, it became clear that the sovereign must be victorious if he could add members to the former at his pleasure: accordingly, the House of Commons impugned the validity of the so-called prerogative; their resistance was successful, and it was exercised no longer. In consequence the old boroughs remained, and no new ones were added; and as, in a changing country like this, many places which were formerly large gradually became small and many small ones on the other hand became large, the distribution of wealth and numbers came in process of time, and by a process which no one watched, to be altogether different from the distribution of parliamentary influence.