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CHAPTER 13 | Document 8

James Burgh, Political Disquisitions 1:26--29, 36--38, 80--82


Bk. II. Chap. II. Inadequate Representation, its Disadvantages.

To compare great things with small, could the East India company be said to be established on a proper foot, if 100 proprietors, whose stock amounted in all to 5,000 l. had the power of choosing the court of directors against the votes of 5000 proprietors, whose stock was worth 5,000,000 l. and if the court of directors, when chosen, possessed absolute power without appeal, and thought themselves responsible to no set of men upon earth? Or if a friendly society consisting of 100 members found that the whole power of the society was engrossed by 3 members; and that the others could obtain nothing they wanted, or in the manner they wished to have it; could this society be, with any shadow of propriety, called free? That parliamentary representation on its present foot, is as inconsistent with liberty, will appear but too clearly in the sequel.

That a part of the people, a small part of the people, and the most needy and dependent part of the people, should engross the power of electing legislators, and deprive the majority, and the independent part of the people of their right, which is, to choose legislators for themselves and the minority and dependent part of the people, is the grossest injustice that can be imagined.

Every government, to have a reasonable expectation of permanency, ought to be founded in truth, justice, and the reason of things. Our admirable constitution, the envy of Europe, is founded in injustice. Eight hundred individuals rule all, themselves accountable to none. Of these about 300 are born rulers, whether qualified or not. Of the others, a great many are said to be elected by a handful of beggars instead of the number and property, who have the right to be the electors. And of these pretended electors, the greatest part are obliged to choose the person nominated by some lord, or by the minister. Instead of the power's returning annually into the hands of the people, or, to speak properly of the boroughs, the lengthening of parliament to septenial, has deprived them of six parts in seven of their power; and if the power returned annually, as it ought, all the people would still have reason to complain, but the handful, who vote the members into the house.

In consequence of the inadequate state of representation, the sense of the people may be grosly misapprehended, or misrepresented, and it may turn out to be of very little consequence, that members were willing to obey the instructions of their constituents; because that would not be obeying the general sense of the people. For the people are not their constituents. The people of England are the innumerable multitude which fills, like one continued city, a great part of Middlesex, Kent and Surry; the countless inhabitants of the vast ridings of Yorkshire, the multitudes, who swarm in the cities and great towns of Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Ely, and others; some of which places have no representatives at all, and the rest are unequally represented. These places comprehend the greatest part of the people. Whereas the instructions would be sent from the hungry boroughs of Cornwal, Devonshire, &c. In short, the sense of the constituents would be, at best, only the sense of a few thousands; whereas it ought to be that of several hundreds of thousands, as will be very clearly made out by and by.

"Neither in Scotland nor England (says Rapin) are the resolutions of parliament to be always considered as the sense of the nation. It is a defect of the constitution of both houses, that the members of parliament receive no instructions from their electors. The moment they are met, they become masters and sovereigns of those by whom they are chosen, and palm upon the nation their own decisions for those of the public, though they are often contrary to the sentiments and interests of the people they represent. Instances are so frequent, that I need not stay to prove what I advance." "It must not be imagined (says he) that then," (in the times of Henry VIII.) "any more than at this day, whatever the parliament did was agreeable to the general opinion of the nation. The representative was chosen as a present, without any instruction concerning the points to be debated in parliament, nay without the people's knowing any thing of them. Thus the house of commons had, as I may say, an unlimited power to determine by a majority of votes, with the concurrence of the lords and assent of the king, what they deemed proper for the welfare of the kingdom." [In our times (the present always excepted) what they deem proper for the welfare of the junto.] "There was no necessity therefore, in order to obtain what the court desired, of having the consent of the people, but only the majority of voices in both houses. Hence it is easy to conceive, that the court used all imaginable means to cause such members to be elected, as were in their sentiments. This is now, and ever will be practiced, till some cure is found for this inconvenience. I call it an inconvenience, because it happens sometimes that the parliament passes acts contrary to the general opinion of the nation."

Under a whig ministry (says the same author) we see a whig parliament chosen, under a tory ministry a tory parliament. "It has frequently happened, that the resolutions of the lower house have been directly contrary to the sentiments of the people, whom they represented. So it is not the people, or commons of England that share the legislative power with the king and peers; but the representatives, who enjoy a privilege, which belongs only to the people in general, to whom however, they are not accountable for their conduct. All they can suffer, if they have acted in parliament contrary to the sense of their county, or borough, is not to be elected again."

Parliament under Henry VIII. confirmed the demolition of the papal power over England, and the dissolution of the religious houses; under Edward VI. demolished popery; under Mary, set it up again; under Elizabeth, overthrew it a second time. So we have seen parliament stamp the Americans, then unstamp them, and then tax them in a new manner. Parliament has not, in these sudden doings and undoings, followed the sense of the people. The unsteady people are not so unsteady as this comes to. In former times, parliament was too much overawed by the authority of kings: in latter times, too much swayed by ministerial influence; and all this in consequence of its being in no respect a just and accountable representative of the people.

. . . . .

Bk. II. Chap. III. What would be adequate Parliamentary Representation.

Five millions, according to the estimate of my incomparable friend Dr. Price, and our best modern calculators, is nearest to the true number of the people of England. The males between 16 and 56 in 5 millions are 1,250,000, or a fourth part of the whole. As youth at 16 are of an age too immature to be capable of voting, so are many on the contrary capable of voting beyond the age of 56; and one may be supposed to make up for the other. It is commonly insisted on, that persons in servitude to others, and those who receive alms, ought not to be admitted to vote for members of parliament, because it is supposed, that their votes will be influenced by those, on whom they depend.

But the objection from influence would fall to the ground, if the state were on a right foot, and parliament free from court-influence. Supposing half the constitution in disorder, it is not easy to determine what would be best for the other half. My purpose is, to point out all the defects. And if the people will correct all I shall point out, I will then answer, that all shall go well; but not if they amend by halves.--To return,--

Every man has what may be called property, and unalienable property. Every man has a life, a personal liberty, a character, a right to his earnings, a right to a religious profession and worship according to his conscience, &c. and many men, who are in a state of dependence upon others, and who receive charity, have wives and children, in whom they have a right. Thus the poor are in danger of being injured by the government in a variety of ways. But, according to the commonly received doctrine, that servants, and those who receive alms, have no right to vote for members of parliament, an immense multitude of the people are utterly deprived of all power in determining who shall be the protectors of their lives, their personal liberty, their little property (which though singly considered is of small value, yet is upon the whole a very great object) and the chastity of their wives and daughters, &c. What is particularly hard upon the poor in this case is, that though they have no share in determining who shall be the lawgivers of their country, they have a very heavy share in raising the taxes which support government. The taxes on malt, on beer, leather, soap, candles, and other articles, which are paid chiefly by the poor, who are allowed no votes for members of parliament, amount to as much as a heavy land-tax. The landed interest would complain grievously, if they had no power of electing representatives. And it is an established maxim in free states, that whoever contributes to the expenses of government ought to be satisfied concerning the application of the money contributed by them; consequently ought to have a share in electing those, who have the power of applying their money. Nor has the receiving of alms been always held a sufficient reason for refusing the privilege of voting, as appears by the following; "Resolved, A.D. 1690, That the free men of the port of Sandwich, inhabiting within the said borough, (although they receive alms) have a right to vote in electing barons to serve in parliament." Query, Whether there be not other instances of persons receiving alms, having a right to vote for members.

But, giving up the point, concerning the right of the poor to vote for members of parliament, the present state of parliamentary representation will still appear to be inadequate beyond all proportion. Of the 1,250,000, the whole number of males in England, we may well suppose that at least one third, or about 410,000 are housekeepers, and independent on alms. Divide this number by 513, the number of members for England, the quotient is 799 and a fraction, the round number is 800, which shews, that no member of parliament ought to carry his election against a competitor by fewer than 401 votes, that being a majority of 800, who have the right of voting, exclusive of the poor and dependent. It we allow them the right or privilege of choosing representatives, which I see no argument against, the number will be much greater, viz. about 1200, a majority of which is 601.

Bk. II. Chap. VII. Inadequate Representation universally complained of. Proposals by various Persons for redressing this Irregularity.

We see what light this grievance of inadequate parliamentary representation has been viewed in by the best politicians. If therefore judge Blackstone did, at the time he wrote the 172d page of the first vol. of his Commentaries, recollect the miserable state of representation in our times, it is inconceivable how he could bring himself to write as he has done. "Only such are entirely excluded, from voting for members, says he, as can have no will of their own" [meaning poor and dependent people without property]. "There is hardly a free agent to be found, but what is entituled to a vote in some place or other in the kingdom." Did the learned judge consider, what he himself has observed, that the borough-members are four times as numerous, as the county members; that a few thousands of electors send in the majority of the house; that in many places a handful of beggars sends in as many members as the great and rich county of York, or city of Bristol? Did the learned judge consider these shocking absurdities, and monstrous disproportions, or did he consider the alarming influence the court has in parliament, when he wrote what follows, viz. "If any alteration might be wished, or suggested in the present frame of parliaments, it should be in favour of a more complete representation of the people." What! are we to put off with a cold If, in a case where our country lies bleeding to death? "If any alteration might be wished"--Let us go on then, and say, If the deliverance of ourselves and our posterity from destruction might be wished; if any alteration of what must bring us to ruin might be wished--any alteration from a mockery rather than the reality of representation--any alteration from 300 placemen and pensioners sitting in the house of commons--any alteration from a corrupt court's commanding the majority of the elections into the house, and of the votes, when in it--any alteration from the parliament's becoming a mere outwork of the court--If it is, at last to be doubted, whether the saving of our country is to be wished, what must become of us? Had a hackneyed court-hireling written in this manner, it had been no matter of wonder. But if the most intelligent men in the nation are to endeavour to persuade the people that there is hardly room for a wish; that there is scarce any thing capable of alteration for the better, (the judge's four volumes are a continued panegyric) at the very time when there is hardly any thing in the condition, it ought to be in, at the time when we have upon us every symptom of a declining state, when we are sinking in a bottomless gulf of debt and corruption, the spirit of the constitution gone, the foundations of public security shaken, and the whole fabrick ready to come down in ruins upon our heads--if they who ought to be the watchmen of the public weal are thus to damp all proposals for redress of grievances--Quo res summa loco? In what condition is this once free and virtuous kingdom likely soon to be?

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 13, Document 8
The University of Chicago Press

[Burgh, James.] Political Disquisitions: or, An Enquiry into Public Errors, Defects, and Abuses. . . . 3 vols. London, 1774--75.

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