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SIR WILLIAM WYNDHAM'S SPEECH,
IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS, ON THE REPEAL OF TAE SEP
TENNIAL ACT. MARCH 13, 1734.
HOWEVER daring may be considered the exertion of parliamentary authority which passed the septennial act, it no doubt was a measure called for by the corruption and turbulence of the times, and which the experience of its beneficial effects completely vindicates.
Frequency of election has uniformly proved the curse of every state in which it was indulged. It renders the councils of a nation as fluctuating as the popular will, and as flagitious as the popular dispositions. It substitutes in legislation for the energy of wisdom, and the coolness of discretion, the violence of folly and the rashness of that party intemperance which it enkindles. It keeps a nation perpetually heated by the ferments it necessarily excites, and lets loose to prey upon society the worst of human passions. It vitiates publick morals, and poisons individual comfort.
No country ever has, or will preserve its internal peace or attain to any height of power or glory which idly permits frequent appeals to popular suffrage.
The change in the constitution of the English house of commons certainly was productive of very salutary consequences. It protected, at a moment of alarm the
publick safety, and infused into the government a stability, vigour, firmness, and consistency, which have enabled it to defeat the designs of faction, and to carry the country triumphantly through all those arduous struggles, and critical junctures in which, during the last and present centuries, it has been placed.
The septennial bill met, when originally introduced into parliament with a vehement resistance; and subsequently on several occasions, strenuous attempts were made, but without success, to procure its repeal. The first of these efforts was in the year 1734. The opposition of that period came forward, and urged it with an uncommon display of ability. They were answered with equal talent by the ministry. No debate, indeed, in the British senate is more celebrated for its eloquence. The speech of Sir William Wyndham has been particularly extolled. By one writer* it is exultingly cited as exhibiting “ the unrivalled orator, the uncorrupted Briton, and the unshaken patriot.” By anothert it is pronounced to be
master-piece of eloquence” and that its reasonings which are fully stated, are unanswerable. Not the slightest notice is taken by either of these historians of the reply of Sir Robert Walpole, or of any of the speeches in support of the bill. We have acted with less partiality. The ablest speech on each side is here inserted. These comprehend all the principal arguments employed in the discussion of the subject. Whatever may be the energy and ingenuity of the attack, it does not surpass the skill and strength of the defence. That mind, truly, must be very weak, or dull, or crooked, which, after reading the speech of Sir Robert Walpole, is not convinced of the impolicy, and dangerous tendency of frequent elections.
THE honourable gentleman who spoke last, in vindicating, as'he called it, his learned friend, threw out a very unfair reflection upon the conduct of a worthy gentleman under the gallery, whose behaviour in parliament, I have been a witness of ; and I can say without flattery, it has been as even and as honourable, as the behaviour of any gentleman in this house; and if the honourable gentleman thinks otherwise, I dare say he is single in his opinion: He is, I believe, the only man, either in the house or out of it, who thinks so; I wish the behaviour of every other gentleman, I will not say in this, but in former parliaments, had been as unexceptionable: for if it had, I am very sure we should have had no occasion for this day's debate.
The observation made by the learned gentleman, which the honourable gentleman took up so much time to explain, was without exception; it was just, it was plain, and therefore wanted neither an explanation nor a vindication ; but, sir, what the worthy gentleman under the gallery, and others as well as he took notice of, was an expression that fell from the learned gentleman, I dare say, without design. He said, that we were to have no dependance upon our constituents; he went further, he said it was a dangerous dependance; nay, he went further still, and said, it was more dangerous than a dependance on the crown. This my worthy friend took notice of, and with his usual modesty, called it a new doctrine. It is, sir, not only a new doctrine, but it is the most monstrous, the most slavish doctrine that was ever heard, and such a doctrine as I hope no man will ever dare to support within these walls; I am persuaded, sir, the learned gentleman did not mean what the words he happened to make use of may seem to import; for though the people of a county, city, or borough may be misled, and may be induced to give
instructions, which are contrary to the true interest of their country, yet I hope he will allow, that in tines past, the crown has been oftner misled, and conse. quently, we must conclude, that it is more apt to be misled in time to come, than we can suppose the people to be.
As to the contests about the next election, sir, that they were begun a long while ago, is a certain fact ; but who the beginners were may not be so certain, or, at least, not so generally known; and the honourable gentleman who spoke last seemed to be ignorant, or indeed, rather to mistake who were the beginners of them; but if he pleases to look about him, he may see one not far distant from him, who, by his agents
, was the first and the principal beginner of them, in most parts of the kingdom. To see them begin so soon, is no new thing, sir. It is a stale ministerial artifice; it has been practised ever since septennial parliaments took place, and will be practised as long as they continue. Ministers of state know well how unequal the contention is between a country gentle
. man, who has nothing but his own estate, greatly exhausted by the many taxes he pays, to depend on; and ministerial election mongers, supplied by gentlemen in office, who have for seven years been heaping up money for that purpose, or perhaps supplied even by the publick treasure of the nation. And the sooner this contention begins, the greater disadvantage the country gentlemen labour under, the more time those tools of corruption have to practise upon the electors, and to discover where that money may be placed to the best advantage, which is issued for corrupting the people, and overturning the constitution. From hence it is obvious who have been, and who will always be the first beginners of such contentions. The learned gentleman, as well as some others
, particularly an honourable gentleman under the gal lery, who spoke early in the debate, and who, indeed, said as much, and in as handsome a manner as can, in my opinion, be said against the question, has told us, that our constitution has been often varied; and
that there was no time, when it was such as we ought, or would desire, to return to. Sir, it is not to be doubted, but our constitution has often varied, and perhaps, there is no time when it was without a fault; but I will affirm, that there is no time in which we may not find some good things in our constitution. There are now, there have been in every century, some good laws existing. Let us preserve those that are good; if any of them have been abolished, let them be restored, and if any of the laws now in being, are found to be attended with inconveniences, let them be repealed: this is what is now desired; this is what the people have reason to expect from parliament; there is nothing now desired but what the people have a right to; they have now, they always had a right to frequent new parliaments; and this right was established and confirmed, even by the claim of rights, notwithstanding what the learned gentleman has said to the contrary. At the time of the revolution, nay, at the present time, at all times, the word parliament, in the common way of speaking, comprehends all the sessions held from one election to another. That this is the common meaning of the word, I appeal to every gentleman in this house; and for this reason, those patriots who drew up our claim of rights, could not imagine, that it was necessary to put in the word new. They could not so much as dream, that the two words, frequent parliaments, would afterwards be interpreted to mean, frequent sessions of parliament; but the lawyers, who are accustomed to confound the sense of the plainest words, immediately found out, that a session of parliament was a parliament, and that therefore the words frequent parliaments, meant only frequent sessions. This quirk the lawyers found out immediately after the revolution; this quirk the courtiers at that time caught hold of; and this set the people anew, upon the vindication of their rights, which they obtained by the triennial bill. By that bill, the right of the people to frequent new parliaments, was established in such