Letters of Junius/Letter XXXVII
To the Printer of the Public Advertiser.
19. March, 1770.
I BELIEVE there is no man, however indifferent about the interests of this country, who will not readily confess that the situation, to which we are now reduced, whether it has arisen from the violence of faction, or from an arbitrary system of government, justifies the most melancholy apprehensions, and calls for the exertion of whatever wisdom or vigour is left among us. The King's answer to the remonstrance of the City of London, and the measures since adopted by the Ministry, amount to a plain declaration, that the principle, on which Mr. Luttrell was seated in the House of Commons, is to be supported in all its consequences, and carried to its utmost extent. The same spirit, which violated the freedom of election, now invades the declaration and bill of rights, and threatens to punish the subject for exercising a privilege, hitherto undisputed, of petitioning the Crown. The grievances of the people are aggravated by insults; their complaints not merely disregarded, but checked by authority; and every one of those acts, against which they remonstrated, confirmed by the King's decisive approbation. At such a moment, no honest man will remain silent or inactive. However distinguished by rank or property, in the rights of freedom we are all equal. As we are Englishmen, the least considerable man among us has an interest equal to the proudest nobleman, in the laws and constitution of his country, and is equally called upon to make a generous contribution in support of them;—whether it be the heart to conceive, the understanding to direct, or the hand to execute. It is a common cause, in which we are all interested, in which we should all be engaged. The man who deserts it at this alarming crisis, is an enemy to his country, and, what I think of infinitely less importance, a traitor to his Sovereign. The subject, who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate, will neither advise or submit to arbitrary measures. The City of London have given an example, which, I doubt not, will be followed by the whole kingdom. The noble spirit of the metropolis is the life-blood of the state, collected at the heart; from that point it circulates, with health and vigour, through every artery of the constitution. The time is come, when the body of the English people must assert their own cause: conscious of their strength, and animated by a sense of their duty, they will not surrender their birth-right to Ministers, Parliaments, or Kings.
The City of London have expressed their sentiments with freedom and firmness; they have spoken truth boldly; and, in whatever light their remonstrance may be represented by courtiers, I defy the most subtle lawyer in this country to point out a single instance in which they have exceeded the truth. Even that assertion, which we are told is most offensive to parliament, in the theory of the English constitution, is strictly true. If any part of the representative body be not chosen by the people, that part vitiates and corrupts the whole. If there be a defect in the representation of the people, that power, which alone is equal to the making of the laws in this country, is not complete, and the acts of parliament under that circumstance, are not the acts of a pure and entire legislature. I speak of the theory of our constitution; and whatever difficulties or inconveniences may attend the practice, I am ready to maintain, that, as far as the fact deviates from the principle, so far the practice is vicious and corrupt. I have not heard a question raised upon any other part of the remonstrance. That the principle, on which the Middlesex election was determined, is more pernicious in its effects, than either the levying of ship-money, by Charles the First, or the suspending power assumed by his son, will hardly be disputed by any man who understands or wishes well to the English constitution. It is not an act of open violence done by the King, or any direct or palpable breach of the laws attempted by his minister, that can ever endanger the liberties of this country. Against such a King or Minister the people would immediately take the alarm, and all the parties unite to oppose him. The laws may be grossly violated in particular instances, without any direct attack upon the whole system. Facts of that kind stand alone; they are attributed to necessity, not defended by principle. We can never be really in danger, until the forms of Parliament are made use of to destroy the substance of our civil and political liberties;—until Parliament itself betrays its trust, by contributing to establish new principles of government, and employing the very weapons committed to it by the collective body to stab the constitution.
As for the terms of the remonstrance, I presume it will not be affirmed, by any person less polished than a gentleman usher, that this is a season for compliments. Our gracious King, indeed, is abundantly civil to himself. Instead of an answer to a petition, his Majesty very graciously pronounces his own panegyric; and I confess that, as far as his personal behaviour, or the royal purity of his intentions is concerned, the truth of those declarations, which the Minister has drawn up for his master, cannot be decently disputed. In every other respect, I affirm, that they are absolutely unsupported either in argument or fact. I must add too, that supposing the speech were otherwise unexceptionable, it is not a direct answer to the petition of the City. His Majesty is pleased to say, that he is always ready to receive the requests of his subjects; yet the sheriffs were twice sent back with an excuse; and it was certainly debated in council whether or no the Magistrates of the City of London should he admitted to an audience. Whether the remonstrance be or be not injurious to Parliament, is the very question between the Parliament and the people, and such a question as cannot be decided by the assertion of a third party, however respectable. That the petitioning for a dissolution of Parliament is irreconcileable with the principles of the constitution is a new doctrine. His Majesty perhaps has not been informed, that the house of commons themselves have, by a formal resolution, admitted it to be the right of the subject; His Majesty proceeds to assure us, that he has made the laws the rule of his conduct.—Was it in ordering or permitting his Ministers to apprehend Mr. Wilkes by a general warrant?—Was is in suffering his Ministers to revive the obsolete maxim of nullum tempus to rob the Duke of Portland of his property, and thereby give a decisive turn to a county election?—Was it in erecting a chamber consultation of surgeons, with authority to examine into and supersede the legal verdict of a jury? Or did his Majesty consult the laws of this country, when he permitted his Secretary of State to declare, that whenever the civil magistrate is trifled with, a military force must be sent for, without the delay of a moment, and effectually employed? Or was it in the barbarous exactness with which this illegal, inhuman doctrine was carried into execution?—If his Majesty had recollected these facts, I think he would never have said, at least with any reference to the measures of his government, that he had made the laws the rule of his conduct. To talk of preserving the affections, or relying on the support of his subjects, while he continues to act upon these principles, is, indeed, paying a compliment to their loyalty, which, I hope, they have too much spirit and understanding to deserve.
His Majesty, we are told, is not only punctual in the performance of his own duty, but careful not to assume any of those powers which the constitution has placed in other hands. Admitting this last assertion to be strictly true, it is no way to the purpose. The City of London have not desired the King to assume a power placed in other hands. If they had, I should hope to see the person who dared to present such a petition, immediately impeached. They solicit their Sovereign to exert that constitutional authority, which the laws have vested in him, for the benefit of his subjects. They call upon him to make use of his lawful prerogative in a case, which our laws evidently supposed might happen, since they have provided for it by trusting the Sovereign with a discretionary power to dissolve the Parliament. This request will, I am confident, be supported by remonstrances from all parts of the kingdom. His Majesty will find at last, that this is the sense of his people, and that it is not his interest to support either ministry or parliament, at the hazard of a breach with the collective body of his subjects.—That he is King of a free people, is, indeed, his greatest glory. That he may long continue the King of a free people, is the second wish that animates my heart. The first is, that the people may be free.
- When his Majesty had done reading his speech, the Lord Mayor, &c. had the honour of kissing his Majesty's hand; after which, as they were withdrawing, his Majesty instantly turned round to his courtiers, and burst out a-laughing.
Nero fiddled, while Rome was burning. John Horne.