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MAGAZINE OF ART.
THE ENGLISH HOUSE OF COMMONS.
In the English House of Commons we have the very type and Hastings. After that the historian who seeks to chronicle the model of all the representative assemblies of modern Europe. vices and victories of kings, the intrigues of courts, and the It is the only body which survived the long struggle between corruption of statesmen, sees them no more. They laboured arbitrary power and popular rights, by which Europe was in obscurity amongst the fens of Lincolnshire, danced in the convulsed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and forests of Nottingham, and sang old songs by their cabin remained to become the ruler of a great empire, and the firesides amongst the wild hills and wilder heaths of Yorkshire; last resort for the complaints and appeals of two hundred digged, and delved, and spun, and wove, and sold broadcloth millions of conquered people. The various bodies, which in the cities and the fields, in poverty, in oppression, and within the last century have rightly or wrongly professed disappointment, but with unconquerable energy and stolid to represent the French people, unconsciously perhaps, or perseverance. Many a peasant's son, weary of a life of insult without acknowledgment, have taken those of Great Britain and outrage, sought refuge in the church from the strong hand as their model, either in the mode of their election, or in that of power, and found himself thus the dispenser of the blessings of conducting their proceedings, or of both. The National and curses of an authority superior to the fortunes or changes Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, the Chamber of Depu of the world,- the Saxon priest jingling the keys of the kingdom ties, and the National Assembly again have been so many of heaven in the face of the Norman baron. But these petty imitations of a system, which, unhappily, France does not seem triumphs were as insignificant in their results as they were to have possessed enough political education to equal, nor mean in their origin. The influence which any number of enough public virtue or patriotic disinterestedness to per- priests or monks, filling subordinate positions in the church or petuate. A very little of that hopeful cheerfulness in defeat in the monastery, could have upon the condition or prospects and disaster, and that moderation in victory, which have at of men of their race, was trifling in the extreme.
A surer all times distinguished the advocates of the popular cause in foundation for hope was in the wants of the conquerors, caused England, would long ago have placed France at the head of by their wars and profuse living, and the increasing wealth of the civilized world. The earlier settlers in America, the the conquered, hoarded up and accumulated by habits of pilgrim fathers, and all others who despaired of carrying the untiring industry. The Normans seem to have appreciated contest for civil and religious liberty to a successful issue in the truth which lies hidden in the fable of the goose which the old world, and sought an asylum in the forests of the far laid the golden egg. They were aware, wild and reckless west, with pardonable adherence to old customs and traditions, though they were, that if they showed themselves too graspcarried with them the forms and theories by which they had in ing they would destroy confidence, and thus diminish proEngland sought to protect themselves against arbitrary vio duction; that to plunder the citizens and serfs without inquiry, lence. The primitive assemblies by which the villages on the and without a show of justice and legality, would be to banks of the Hudson and Delaware regulated their affairs with mortgage the future to supply the wants of the present. How grave solicitude, were as good a miniature as time and cir. did they act? They summoned the vanquished people to send cumstances would permit of the larger, and more powerful, but persons to represent them to Westminster, and bid them tax not more intrepid body, whose members made the walls of St. themselves,-called upon them to declare openly and on oath Stephen's ring with their eloquent protests against encroach the amount of their property, and set apart on behalf of them. ments on their freedom, or fiery denunciations of the “ selves and their constituencies a certain portion per cent. to Charles” and his accomplices; and the governor who sum meet the wants of their lord the king, or in other words the moned their meetings and gave to their acts the sanction of chief of the conquering army. his fiat, was as faithful a rendering of a gay cavalier king, as It is in this assembly that the conquered people first appear could be presented in the person of a stiff and justere Puritan. on the surface of society, and it is here that we find the It may not be uninteresting to our readers to trace from small origin of the English House of Commons. But it must not be beginnings the growth of that mighty lever, which, resting on supposed, that in these early times, the burghers and freefaithful hearts and intellectual cultivation as on a pivot, now holders were by any means willing to elect, or to be elected. moves the world.
A seat in parliament was not a dazzling reward of ambition. From the very nature of its origin the English House of No man sought to wade to it through oceans of beer, to buy it Commons draws the elements of its power and influence. by parcels of guineas, to storm it by a rush of lying bombast The period in which it took its rise was one of rapine and on the platform. These were not the days of honied falsehood, of violence. For a system of law, imperfect indeed, but at least patting children on the head to win the heart of the mother, and, founded on right, and administered with impartiality, the en conséquence—the father's vote, of banners, music, caricature, Norman Conquest substituted the will of the strongest. The intimidation, kidnapping, and all the other machinery which first peal which was rung out from the bells of Battle Abbey a modern candidate puts in force to secure his return. But celebrated not more the conquest of a kingdom and the when the king's writ arrived, ordering the sheriff "to send to foundation of a dynasty, than the breaking up of the old parliament two deputies from each borough within the county, framework of society, and the erection of a system in which and these provided with sufficient powers from their compriests, vowed to poverty and celibacy, became infamous for munity to consent in their name to what he and his council their rapine and licentiousness; and soldiers, who had sworn should require of them," there were fear and trepidation in to protect the weak and succour the helpless, were the terror of the hearts of all the citizens, and lamentation in all their all who had no defence but in the mercy of their conquerors. dwellings. One or more had to be sent away from their From the 11th century we hear little of the vanquished people. shops and looms, their monies and their usances, it might be The Saxons showed themselves as true men on the field of more than a hundred miles, mounted on a packhorse, across
VOL. I.-No. I.
almost impassable roads, and over wild heaths, exposed to in of 1688 occurred, the people were no longer a power in the clement weather, assaults of highwaymen and bandlit barons, state. The great Whig lords who ran to offer their congratuto remain for a week in communication with the conquerors, lations to William, had filled the House of Commons with sneered at and hustled by the Norman men-at-arms, scorned their relatives and dependents, who re-echoed their cries, and by the nobles for their base birth and their ignoble occupation, acted upon their wishes. It must not be supposed, however, and there, in the cloistered halls of the old city of Westminster, that any violent revolution, any open robbery of popular subjected day after day, with ’bated breath and whispering rights, any coup d'etat was necessary to make the aristocracy a humbleness, to a searching examination to force them to reveal ruling body. Time, which works so many noiseless changes, the exact amount which might be wrung from themselves and and, unseen and unheard, brings about so many stupendous their fellow-townsmen, without causing their utter and irre results, effected this also. Scattered all over the country were trievable ruin. It may be readily believed also, that the localities which bore honoured names, and were linked to . burghers themselves were anything but anxious to elect, ennobling memories; towns, which in the fourteenth seeing that in doing so, they not only supplied the infor fifteenth centuries were celebrated for their stuffs and their mation for the more effectual spoiling of their own goods, but broadcloths, the industry of their population, the amount of were compelled to bear the expenses of their representatives, their traffic ; towns which weary travellers on the great roads during their forced residence in the capital. There were then reached with joy, as havens of rest for their limbs, stiffened no clamouring for the suffrage, no fierce contests in the regis by ten or fifteen hours exposure on horseback, or in a waggon ; tering courts, no bribery, or corruption, or intrigue, or com places where proud merchants heaped up fortunes, huge for mittees. No news, we are told by Ilume, could be more those days; where generation after generation of noble disagreeable to a borough than to find that it must elect, or to families filled the ancestral pew in the ancestral church, any individual than that he was elected.
the observed and admired of a host of faithful dependents, From the first these representatives of the people sat apart, and where each successive election, in those old times and were called into the presence of the barons only to be ques occurring at greater intervals than now, sent a member tioned, and, having rendered their account, were dismissed to to parliament, in whose selection the votes of a great mass their homes. But, from frequently meeting together, the of honest, though rude and ill-informed men, possessed citizens began to feel more confidence in their united strength, a large, though no doubt contested influence. The creation and from frequently seeing their conquerors, they began to of new manufactures, the progress of science, the discovery fear them lesz. From merely rendering their accounts, they of new lines of route, and the use of new material in the arts, at last began to deliberate, and finally to complain. During and above all, the invention of the steam engine, which the reign of Henry IV., in the year 1400, they began the transferred the great seats of commerce and industry to practice of withholding the supplies until they received an the coal districts, and gathered together large masses of popuanswer to their petitions ; and in 1509, Sir Thomas More, for lation, by whom the influences of the territorial aristocracy, the first time, as a member of the House of Commons, opposed was unfelt and unknown, wrought a wonderful change in the a demand for money. This was in fact a bargaining for their electoral body. Places which had for centuries sent members rights, in return for money, between the subjects and the con to parliament, began to decline ; the population decreased, or querors. Things at last arrived at such a pitch, that in the remained stationary,--houses fell into ruin, business began to reign of Queen Elizabeth, when some objection was made to decay, until at last towns in various parts of the country became voting the supplies before certain grievances were redressed, like old Sarum, nothing remaining to mark their site save & and a lawyer arose in the house, and said that he marvelled difference in the hue of the corn or the grass which grew over much that the house should stand upon the granting of a the line of the streets. These were the “rotten boroughs." subsidy, seeing that their houses and lands, and money, and The towns and their inhabitants having wholly disappeared, all that they possessed, were Her Majesty's, and that she the representatives were thenceforward nominated by the lords might do with them as she pleased, -he was received with of the soil. It is one of the most singular facts in the history shouts of laughter,
of England that this abnormal state of things came in process But whatever might be the state of feeling amongst the of time to be considered by the Tory party one of the greatest Commons themselves upon this head, the monarch's notions bulwarks of the constitution. Abolish the rotten boroughs, of his rights were in no wise altered. He was still, in his own and you deprive noble families of their prescriptive and ineyes, the head of a conquering army, the supreme arbiter of alienable rights; abolish the rotten boroughs, and you throw the lives and fortunes of his subjects. No murmurs of the the election into the hands of a wild and unbridled democracy,. mutinous herd whom his convenience caused him to collect at incapable of calm judgment, and exulting in destruction; rare intervals at Westminster, that they might tax themselves, abolish the rotten boroughs, and you deprive parliament of the no concessions which policy might compel him to make in the services of numbers of young and able men, whom a large and hour of need, abated one tittle of his rights. Superior to all uneducated constituency could never appreciate, but whose restraints, save those which expediency might impose, he was, talents and promise a noble patron can detect at a glance, and in every sense of the word, in his own estimation, the absolute secure to the service of the country by a nomination to a seat; sovereign of a kingdom, which was his by the double law of and above and beyond all these, abolish the rotten boroughs, the sword and of hereditary descent. It was the assertion of and instead of effecting a salutary reform, you evince such this supposed right on the one hand, and the people's indig- spirit of change and innovation, which can end in nothing but nant protest against it on the other, which gave rise to the revolution and anarchy. struggles which ended in the death of the first Charles. The Such were the principal features in the arguments used by assembly which his ancestors had called into existence for the advocates of the old system. The agitators for reform, purposes of tyranny, had, by the natural course of events, who urged the claims of the great towns of modern growth, become the surest bulwark of popular freedom.
such as Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, and the The influence which the House of Commons thus acquired, suburban districts of London to a just and equal share in the and the important part which it consequently began to play in representation, had only to reply to all this, that the rotten the government of the country, soon made it an object of boroughs were but an abuse which had grown up through a ambition to the noble and the high-born to enter it. As soon long course of ages, that whatever might be the peculiar as its right to vote the supplies, and to render the laws pro advantages attaching to some parts of it, nothing could justify posed by the other branches of the legislature null and void or excuse the total exclusion of large masses of the popufor want of its sanction, was freely acknowledged; as soon as lation from all share in the representation. Independently it became an engine of great power, the aristocracy det rmined of this, it was a gross
buse that large and wealthy merto lay hold of it, and work it for their own ends. The bur cantile communities, whose interest in the monetary affairs. gesses and yeomanry never knew the value of the institution of the kingdom, in the foreign relations and commercial tariff's they had created, until they had lost it. When the Revolution and treaties, and modes of taxation which the parliament