Page images

forming the office to which they are appointed. It tells us also, that no court of justice can have a power inconsistent with, or paramount to, the known laws of the land ; that the people, when they choose their representatives, never mean to convey to them a power of invading the rights, or trampling upon the liberties of those whom they represent. What security would they have for their rights, if once they admitted, that a court of judicature might determine every question that came before it, not by any known, positive law, but by the vague, indeterminate, arbitrary rule, of what the noble lord is pleased to call the wisdom of the court? With respect to the decision of the courts of justice, I am far from denying them their due weight and authority; yet, placing them in the most respectable view, I still consider them, not as law, but as an evidence of the law; and before they can arrive even at that degree of authority, it must appear, that they are founded in, and confirmed by, reason; that they are supported by precedents taken from good and moderate times; that they do not contradict any positive law; that they are submitted to without reluctance, by the people; that they are unquestioned by the legislature (which is equivalent to a tacit confirmation) and what, in my judgment, is by far the most important, that they do not violate the spirit of the constitution. My lords, this is not a vague or loose expression. We all know what the constitution is. We all know, that the first principle of it is, that the subject shall not be governed by the arbitrium of any one man, or body of men (less than the whole legislature) but by certain laws, to which he has virtually given his consent, which are open to him to examine, and not beyond his ability to understand.Now, my lords, I affirm, and am ready to maintain, that the late decision of the house of commons upon the Middlesex election, is destitute of every one of those properties and conditions which I hold to be essential to the legality of such a decision. It is not founded in reason; for it carries with it a contradiction, that the representative should perform

the office of the constituent body. It is not supported by a single precedent; for the case of sir R. Walpole is but a half precedent, and even that half is imperfect. Incapacity was indeed declared ; but his crimes are stated as the ground of the resolution, and his opponent was declared to be not duly elected, even after his incapacity was established. It contradicts Magna Charta and the Bill of Rights, by which it is provided, that no subject shall be deprived of his freehold, unless by the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land ; and that elections of members to serve in parliament shall be free; and so far is this decision from being submitted to by the people, that they have taken the strongest measures, and adopted the most positive language to express their discontent. Whether it will be questioned by the legislature, will depend upon your lordships' resolution; but that it violates the spirit of the constitution, will, I think, be disputed by no man who has heard this day's debate, and who wishes well to the freedom of his country : yet, if we are to believe the noble lord, this great grievance, this manifest violation of the first principles of the constitution, will not admit of a remedy; is not even capable of redress, unless we appeal at once to heaven. My lords, I have better hopes of the constitution, and a firmer confidence in the wisdom and constitutional authority of this house. It is your ancestors, my lords, it is to the English barons that we are indebted for the laws and constitution we possess. Their virtues were rude and uncul. tivated, but they were great and sincere. Their understandings were as little polished as their manners, but they had hearts to distinguish right from wrong; they had heads to distinguish truth from falsehood; they understood the rights of humanity, and they had spirit to maintain them.

My lords, I think that history has not done justice to their conduct, when they obtained from their so. vereign, that great acknowledgment of national rights contained in Magna Clarta : they did not confine it to themselves alone, but delivered it as a com


mon blessing to the whole people. They did not say, these are the rights of the great barons, or these are the rights of the great prelates :-No, my lords; they said, in the simple Latin of the times, nullus liber homo, and provided as carefully for the meanest subject as for the greatest. These are uncouth words, and sound but poorly in the ears of scholars; neither are they addressed to the criticism of scholars, but to the hearts of free men, These three words, nullus liber homo, have a meaning which interests us all; they deserve to be remembered they deserve to be inculcated in our minds—they are worth all the classicks. Let us not, then, dege . nerate from the glorious example of our ancestors. Those iron barons (for so I may call them when compared with the silken barons of modern days) were the guardians of the people; yet their virtues, my lords, were never engaged in a question of such importance as the present. A breach has been made in the constitution—the battlements are dismantled the citadel is open to the first invader--the walls totter the constitution is not tenable. What remains then, but for us to stand foremost in the breach, to repair it, or perish in it?

Great pains have been taken to alarm us with the consequences of a difference between the two houses of parliament—that the house of commons will resent our presuming to take notice of their proceedings; that they will resent our daring to advise the crown, and never forgive us for attempting to save the state. My lords, I am sensible of the importance and difficulty of this great crisis: at a moment, such as this, we are called upon to do our duty, without dreading the resentment of any man. prehensions of this kind are to affect us, let us con. sider which we ought to respect most, the represen . tative, or the collective body of the people. My lords, five hundred gentlemen are not ten millions ; and if we must have a contention, let us take care to have the English nation on our side. If this question be given up, the freeholders of England are reduced to a condition baser than the peasantry of Po

But if ap

[ocr errors]

land. If they desert their own cause, they deserve to be slaves! My lords, this is not merely the cold opinion of my understanding, but the glowing expression of what I feel. It is my heart that speaks. I know I speak warmly, my lords; but this warmth shall neither betray my argument nor my temper. The kingdom is in a flame. As mediators between the king and people, it is our duty to represent to him the true condition and temper of his subjects. It is a duty which no particular respects should hinder us from performing; and whenever bis majesty shall demand our advice, it will then be our duty to inquire more minutely into the causes of the present discontents. Whenever that inquiry shall come on, I pledge myself to the house to prove, that since the first institution of the house of commons, not a single precedent can be produced to justify their late proceedings. My noble and learned friend (the lord chancellor) has pledged himself to the house, that he will support that assertion.

My lords, the character and circumstances of Mr. Wilkes have been very improperly introduced into this question, not only here, but in that court of judicature where his cause was tried. I mean the house of commons. With one party he was a patriot of the first magnitude ; with the other the vilest incendiary. For my own part, I consider him merely and indifferently as an English subject, possessed of certain rights which the laws have given him, and which the laws alone can take from him. I am nei. ther moved by his private vices, nor by his publick merits. In his person, though he were the worst of men, I contend for the safety and security of the best; and, God forbid, my lords, that there should be a power in this country of measuring the civil rights of the subject by his moral character, or by any

other rule but the fixed laws of the land ! I believe, my lords, I shall not be suspected of any personal partiality to this unhappy man. I am not very conversant in pamphlets or newspapers; but, from what I have heard, and from the little I have

read, I may venture to affirm, that I have had my share in the compliments which have come from that quarter ; and, as for motives of ambition (for I must take to myself a part of the noble duke's insinuation) I believe, my lords, there have been times in which I have had the honour of standing in such favour in the closet, that there must have been something extravagantly unreasonable in my wishes if they might not all have been gratified. After neglecting those opportunities, I am now suspected of coming forward in the decline of life, in the anxious pursuit of wealth and power, which it is impossible for me to enjoy. Be it so. There is one ambition at least which I ever will acknowledge, which I will not renounce but with my life. It is the ambition of delivering to my posterity those rights of freedom which I have received from my ancestors. I am not now pleading the cause of an individual, but of every freeholder in England. In what manner this house may constitutionally interpose in their defence, and what kind of redress this case will require and admit of, is not at present the subject of our consideration. The amendment, 'if agreed to, will naturally lead us to such an inquiry. That inquiry may, perhaps, point out the necessity of an act of the legislature, or it may lead us, perhaps, to desire a conference with the other house ; which one noble lord affirms is the only parliamentary way of proceed ing; and which another noble lord assures us the house of commons would either not come to, or would break off with indignation. Leaving their lordships to reconcile that matter between themselves, I shall only say, that before we have inquired, we cannot be provided with materials: consequently we are not at present prepared for a conference.

It is not impossible, my lords, that the inquiry I speak of may lead us to advise his majesty to dissolve the present parliament; nor have I any doubt of our right to give that advice, if we should think it necessary. His majesty will then determine whether he will yield to the united petitions of the people of England, or

[blocks in formation]
« PreviousContinue »