Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

It may be objected, however, that the deference which we have observed that the rural clergy and the lesser squires bore to the higher gentry would have prevented this result. It may be said that, although they would have by law possessed the power of influencing in the last resort the national destiny and deciding on the national constitution, they would not in practice have done so; that they would have given up their own judgments, and would have been guided by the opinions of the classes whom they knew, and whom they admitted, to be their superiors. But experience shows that this is an error, and that those who entertain it have a mistaken view of a very important part of human nature. If you give people uncontrolled power, real, boná-fide, tangible, felt power, they will exercise it according to their own notions. Of course this is only true of classes which have notions. An ignorant peasantry, for example, have none; if you give them nominal political power, you do not give them any thing they can understand, or appreciate, or use. It is not real power to them; it has none of the effectiveness of

n power in their hands: it is an instrument they cannot employ to obtain any preconceived result; they are bewildered about its nature; they do not know what they are doing when they are exerting it; it is not any thing they can prize, and use, and enjoy. But a class of gentry or clergy, a moderately educated class of any sort, is not in this position. It has views, opinions, wishes of its own: those views may be narrow, those opinions erroneous, those wishes foolish ; but they have them. They are attached to them. If power is put into their hands, they will try to carry them out in action. Under a constitution which did not give them predominant power, the Tory squire and the Tory clergy were ready to give up their vague opinions and their floating predilections; but if they had been invested with a constitutional authority and a legislative omnipotence, they would never have given those opinions and predilections up, or imagined that they could give them up; they would have stiffened them into a compact creed, and tried to realise them under the despotism of the Stuarts.

It is therefore certain that no system of universal suffrage, or of very diffused and popular suffrage, would have secured the maintenance of the House of Hanover and the security of English liberty. The lower classes would themselves probably have been on the other side; and whether that be so or no, the persons who had the greatest, the surest, and the most diffused influence over them were indisputably on the other side for

It is certain, too, that no system of uniform but not universal suffrage which would have been endured by the country would

a

the most part:

have given at that time a real expression to the will of the country. As we have explained, the real opinion of the country was in accordance with the opinion of the wealthier trading and mercantile classes. They were zealous for the House of Hanover; the nation, though not zealous for it, was favourable to it. By establishing a high and uniform qualification for votes in large boroughs, and by giving a very considerable number of members to those large boroughs, it would have been possible, though it would have been difficult, to secure a Parliament with an opinion substantially in accordance with the decision of the nation. It would have been difficult, for the great towns were then few and scattered; the north of England, which now teems with them, was then a poor district, not only in comparison with what it now is, but also with many parts of the south as it was at that time. Still, by such a system as we have suggested, it would have been possible to throw the leading authority of the nation into the hands of the large towns, and into the hands of the richer persons in those towns. In practice, however, no such constitution would have been endured. The Tory gentleman would not have endured to be put into the yoke of the “ fundholder" or the manufacturer. "The clergy would never

" have endured a subjection to the class among whom Dissent had the greatest hold, and possibly a preponderating influence. To have attempted to have placed the country under the rule of the commercial classes in towns and cities, would have been a greater revolution than the change of the dynasty itself; it would have shocked the prejudices of the nation at large; it never suggested itself even to those very classes themselves.

Thus all ordinary systems of suffrage bring out one or other of two results. They would either have thrown preponderating and conclusive power into the hands of the lesser gentry and the clergy, or they would have thrown an equal and similar power into the hands of the manufacturers and merchants. The first result would have been easy: England was then a predominantly agricultural country, and it would have been very easy to frame a system of suffrage which would give the ordinary squire and the ordinary clergyman--the ruling classes in agricultural society then as now-a large predominance. Any system which gave what would seem in theory its due weight to the counties would have had that effect. A system might have been suggested which would have given enormous power to the large towns. But both these systems would have been inadequate to the end desired. That which gave preponderance to the ordinary landholder would have represented rather the tradition of Toryism than the present decision of the living nation : that which gave a preponderance to manufacturers and traders would have been offensive to almost all the country: it would have been unendurable by many classes of it: it would not have been, in fact, a government; for it could not have governed a country in which it had no root, and to whose keenest prejudices it was adverse.

The system which was in fact adopted obviated these defects. Its peculiar nature threw preponderant power into the hands of the higher gentry and the nobility. The smaller boroughs had fallen by a kind of necessity of nature into their hands; their influence in the counties was preponderant, if not overwhelming. As we have explained, this class was the one most trusted by the nation, which was universally believed to have the greatest political intelligence, whose opinions in matter of fact were coincident with those of all the most intelligent classes. Under any other system of representation, it would not bave been possible to give to this class preponderant power. It is not in the nature of any extended system of suffrage to give to a small upper class any very considerable amount of power. Their numbers are few, and their votes are immeasurably outnumbered by the votes of their inferiors. It is not possible to establish in any country a system of uniform suffrage so narrow and so high as to give to this small upper class a preponderant authority in the country. It seems ridiculous in a popular government to give votes to a very

few persons only; and as soon as any uniform system of suffrage is extended beyond those few, it gives decisive predominance to the many, and on that very account withdraws it from the less numerous but more educated orders.

In this way, therefore, we think it certain that in the earlier part of the last century the old system of representation, by throwing into the hands of a peculiar and influential class the predominant authority in the state, was more beneficial to the nation than a more diffused and popular system would have been. The materials for the creation of constituencies both numerous and intelligent, both well-educated and influential, did not exist. The practical choice was between an uninstructed number and a select few: our constitution gave the preponderance to the latter; and in the great struggle between the House of Stuart and the House of Hanover,-between the principle of legitimacy and the principle of freedom,--the consequences were beneficial and were decisive. It not only secured the authority of a free government, but the case with which it did so has disguised from us the difficulties with which it contended. The victory was so complete, that the recollection of the conflict is confused.

With that struggle, however, the singular usefulness of the

a

old system of representation certainly ended. We do not think that, in the remaining part of the history of the eighteenth century, it gave at all a better expression to the national opinion than any other system would have done. Various writers have made charges against the English government on account of the wars which marked the period; but we think unjustly. On the whole, no nation of equal strength, of equal courage, and of equal pride, has ever in the history of the world pursued a course so tranquil. We were entangled in a Spanish war; we were induced by our Hanoverian connections to intermeddle unnecessarily in Germany; we were at war occasionally, as in every century we have from time to time been, with France: but none of these wars were wars of ambition. We wished when at war for national glory : we were not sorry to go to war, because we thought we might gain glory in it; but we never went to war with a distinct desire for territorial aggrandisement. We have never had in our national character any principle of aggression. We have no such settled inciting motive. On the contrary, we wish that every one shall have his own,--shall retain whatever he has already by right or by prescription; though we are jealousjealous even to slaying of any one who by hint, allusion, or suggestion, throws a doubt upon our own title to any thing which we already have. We are by nature unwilling to relinquish, though we are not desirous to acquire.

The actual government of the last century carried out these principles fairly and well; but it is probable that any other government which the English people would have borne would have done so equally. A more democratic government would perhaps have been more warlike: but an English democracy will probably never be very warlike; it will never engage in a continued series of intentional aggressions ; least of all would it have done so in the last century, when there was no struggle in Europe which could arouse the popular passions, and no cause which could interest profoundly the popular imagination. The wars of Protestantism had passed away, and the wars of Jacobinism had not yet begun. It is possible that a more democratic government would, with its inherent aggressive instincts, have interfered somewhat more in the petty wars of circumstance and occasion which complicate the history of the last century, and make it so tedious to us now. But we did interfere a good deal in them as it was.

For an aristocracy, ours has never been a pacific aristocracy. It is in many ways their boast, their pride, and their merit, that they have less of the distinctive peculiarities of an aristocracy than any other which has ever existed; they claim justly to have a more popular interest, and a more vigorous sympathy. The blame that attaches to them is similar:

[ocr errors]

they have shown the same qualities in the defects of their government: they have had but little of the refining, calculating, diplomatic habit which usually characterises the policy of an hereditary class that have much to lose in war, and much to enjoy in peace. The English aristocracy is the most warlike of great aristocracies, and the English nation is the least warlike of free nations. Few of the many threads of union which so richly pervade our social system have been more influential than this one. We have had much of martial manliness where we should have expected but little; we have had much of apathetic indifference where we might have looked for an aggressive passion. The warmth above has been greater, and that below less, than a theorist would have expected; and therefore our social fabric has been more equable in temperature than we should have ventured to predict.

In the quiet times, therefore, of the middle part of the eighteenth century there is no particular reason for believing that our old systein gave a much better or a much worse representation to the national voice than any other system might have been expected to give. In the more troubled times of the American war and the French war, there is even less reason to think that any other system would have varied much the course of our policy. We should have tried to conquer America under any government; and we should have tried to resist the aggressive proselytism of France under any government. We

We may form our own opinions now of the expediency, the justice, or the possibility of these attempts; we may think that the American war showed national narrow-inindedness, and the French war showed national irritability; but the indubitable fact remains, that both the one and the other were popular in their day, and that both were thoroughly acceptable to the community at large as well as to the aristocracy.

There is, however, great and conclusive reason to believe that, during the later period of its existence, the old system of representation had an inherent defect peculiar to itself, which, if it did not disqualify altogether for giving a correct embodiment to national opinion, made it much less likely than most other systems of representation to do so perfectly. The social condition of England had undergone a series of very extensive changes between the time of the accession of the House of Hanover and the year 1832. A new world-a world of industry and manufacture—had been created; new interests had arisen; new modes of thought had been awakened; new habits of mind had been engendered. The mercantile and manufacturing classes, which had risen to influence, were naturally unrecognised by the ancient constitution; they lived under its

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »