Page images

of this country, always the admiration, and sometimes the envy of the wise and learned in every other nation, - we have discovered that this boasted constitution, in the most boasted part of it, is a gross imposition upon the understanding of mankind, an insult to their feelings, and acting by contrivances destructive to the best and most valuable interests of the people. Our political architects have taken a survey of the fabric of the British constitution. It is singular, that they report nothing against the crown, nothing against the Lords; but in the House of Commons every thing is unsound; it is ruinous in every part. It is infested by the dry rot, and ready to tumble about our ears without their immediate help. You know by the faults they find, what are their ideas of the alteration. As all government stands upon opinion, they know that the way utterly to destroy it is to remove that opinion, to take away all reverence, all confidence from it; and then, at the first blast of public discontent and popular tumult, it tumbles to the ground.

In considering this question, they, who oppose it, oppose it on different grounds; one is, in the nature of a previous question; that some alterations may be expedient, but that this is not the time for making them. The other is, that no essential alterations are at all wanting: and that neither now, nor at any time, is it prudent or safe to be meddling with the fundamental principles, and ancient tried usages of our constitution — that our representation is as nearly perfect as the necessary imperfection of human affairs and of human creatures will suffer it to be; and that it is a subject of prudent and honest use and thankful enjoyment, and not of captious criticism and rash experiment.

On the other side, there are two parties, who proceed on two grounds, in my opinion, as they state them, utterly irreconcileable. The one is juridical, the other political. The one is in the nature of a claim of right, on the supposed rights of man as man; this party desire the decision of a suit. The other ground, as far as I can divine what it directly means, is, that the representation is not so politically framed as to answer the theory of its institution. As to the claim of right, the meanest petitioner, the most gross and ignorant, is as good as the best; in some respects his claim is more favourable on account of his ignorance ; his weakness, his poverty, and distress, only add to his titles; he sues in forma pauperis; he ought to be a favourite of the court. But when the other ground is taken, when the question is political, when a new constitution is to be made on a sound theory of government, then the presumptuous pride of didactic ignorance is to be excluded from the counsel in this high and arduous matter, which often bids defiance to the experience of the wisest. The first claims a personal representation, the latter rejects it with scorn and fervour. The language of the first party is plain and intelligible; they, who plead an absolute right, cannot be satisfied with any thing short of personal representation, because all natural rights must be the rights of individuals; as by nature there is no such thing as politic or corporate personality; all these ideas are mere fictions of law, they are creatures of voluntary institution; men as men are indi viduals, and nothing else. They, therefore, who reject the principle of natural and personal representation, are essentially and eternally at variance with those who claim it. As to the first sort of reformers, it is ridiculous to talk to them of the British constitution upon any or upon all of its bases; for they lay it down, that every man ought to govern himself, and that where he cannot go himself he must send his representative; that all other government is usurpation, and is so far from having a claim to our obedience, it is not only our right, but our duty, to resist it. Nine tenths of the reformers argue thus, that is, on thenatural right. It is impossible not to make some reflection on the nature of this claim, or avoid a comparison between the extent of the principle and the present object of the demand. If this claim be founded, it is clear to what it goes. The House of Commons, in that light, undoubtedly is no representative of. the people as a collection of individuals. Nobody pretends it, nobody can justify such an assertion. When you come to


examine into this claim of right, founded on the right of selfgovernment in each individual, you find the thing demanded infinitely short of the principle of the demand. What! one third only of the legislature, and of the government no share at all? What sort of treaty of partition is this for those who have an inherent right to the whole? Give them all they ask, and your grant is still a cheat; for how comes only a third to be their younger children's fortune in this settlement ? How came they neither to have the choice of kings, or lords, or judges, or generals, or admirals, or bishops, or priests, or ministers, or justices of peace? Why, what have you to answer in favour of the prior rights of the crown and peerage, but this — our constitution is a prescriptive constitution; it is a constitution whose sole authority is, that it has existed time out of mind. It is settled in these two portions against one, legislatively; and in the whole of the judicature, the whole of the federal capacity, of the executive, the prudential, and financial administration, in one alone.

Nor was your House of Lords and the prerogatives of the crown settled on any adjudication in favour of natural rights, for they could never be so partitioned. Your king, your lords, your judges, your juries, grand and little, all are prescriptive; and what proves it, is, the disputes not yet concluded, and never near becoming so, when any of them first originated. Prescription is the most solid of all titles, not only to property, but, which is to secure that property, to government. They harmonize with each other, and give mutual aid to one another. It is accompanied with another ground of authority in the constitution of the human mind, presumption. It is a presumption in favour of any settled scheme of government against any untried project, that a nation has long existed and flourished under it. It is a better presumption, even of the choice of a nation, far better than any sudden and temporary arrangement by actual election. Because a nation is not an idea only of local extent, and individual momentary aggregation, but it is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers, and in space. And this is a choice, not of one day, or one set of people, not a tumultuary and giddy choice; it is a deliberate election of ages and of generations; it is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice; it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time. It is a vestment, which accommodates itself to the body. Nor is prescription of government formed upon blind, unmeaning prejudicesfor man is a most unwise, and a most wise being. The individual is foolish. The multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it almost always acts right.

The reason for the crown as it is, for the Lords as they are, is my reason for the Commons as they arc, the electors as they are. Now, if the crown and the lords, and the judicatures, are all prescriptive, so is the House of Commons of the very same origin, and of no other. We and our electors have their powers and privileges both made and circumscribed by prescription, as much to the full as the other parts; and as such we have always claimed them, and on no other title. The House of Commons is a legislative body corporate by prescription, not made upon any given theory, but existing prescriptively — just like the rest. This prescription has made it essentially what it is, an aggregate collection of three parts, knights, citizens, burgesses. The question is, whether this has been always so, since the House of Commons has taken its present shape and circumstances, and has been an essential operative part of the constitution ; which, I take it, it has been for at least five hundred years.

This I resolve to myself in the affirmative: and then another question arises, whether this House stands firm upon its ancient foundations, and is not, by time and accidents, so declined from its perpendicular as to want the hand of the wise and experienced architects of the day to set it upright again, and to prop and buttress it up for duration; whether it continues true to the principles upon which it has hitherto stood; — whether this be de facto the constitution of the House of Commons, as it has been since the time that the House of Commons has, without dispute, become a necessary and an efficient part of the British constitution ? To ask whether a thing, which has always been the same, stands to its usual principle, seems to me to be perfectly absurd ; for how do you know the principles but from the construction ? and if that remains the same, the principles remain the same. It is true, that to say your constitution is what it has been, is no sufficient defence for those who say it is a bad constitution. It is an answer to those who say that it is a degenerate constitution. To those, who say it is a bad one, I answer, look to its effects. In all moral machinery the moral results are its test.

On what grounds do we go, to restore our constitution to what it has been at some given period, or to reform and re-construct it upon principles more conformable to a sound theory of government? A prescriptive government, such as ours, never was the work of any legislator, never was made upon any foregone theory. It seems to me a preposterous way of reasoning, and a perfect confusion of ideas, to take the theories, which learned and speculative men have made from that government, and then, supposing it made on those theories, which were made from it, to accuse the government as not corresponding with them. I do not vilify theory and speculation — no, because that would be to vilify reason itself. Neque decipitur ratio, neque decipit unquam. No; whenever I speak against theory, I mean always a weak, erroneous, fallacious, unfounded, or imperfect theory; and one of the ways of discovering that it is a false theory is by comparing it with practice. This is the true touchstone of all theories, which regard man and the affairs of men - does it suit his nature in general ? — does it suit his nature as modified by his habits ?

« PreviousContinue »