Speech on the Septennial Act

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Speech on the Septennial Act, in reply to Sir William Wyndham  (1734) 
by Robert Walpole
This speech was delivered by Sir Robert Walpole on the motion to repeal the Septennial Bill, delivered in the House of Commons, 1734, in reply to Sir William Wyndham. It is included in Select British Eloquence by Chauncey A. Goodrich, D.D., published New York, 1865. Footnotes, editorial insertions, and the explanation of the aftermath are by Chauncey A. Goodrich, 1865.

Sir,—I do assure you, I did not intend to have troubled you on this occasion. But such incidents now generally happen toward the end of our debates, nothing at all relating to the subject; and gentlemen make such suppositions (meaning some person, or perhaps, as they say, no person now in being), and talk so much of wicked ministers, domineering ministers, ministers pluming themselves in defiances—which terms, and such like, have been of late so much made use of in this House—that if they really mean nobody either in the House or out of it, yet it must be supposed they at least mean to call upon some gentlemen in this House to make them a reply. I hope, therefore, I may be allowed to draw a picture in my turn; and I may likewise say, that I do not mean to give a description of any particular person now in being. When gentlemen talk of ministers abandoned to all sense of virtue or honor, other gentlemen may, I am sure, with equal justice, and, I think, more justly, speak of anti-ministers and mock-patriots, who never had either virtue or honor; but in the whole course of their opposition are actuated only by motives of envy, and of resentment against those who have disappointed them in their views, or may not perhaps have complied with all their desires.

But now, sir, let me too suppose, and the House being cleared, I am sure no one that hears me can come within the description of the person I am to suppose. Let us suppose in this, or in some other unfortunate country, an anti-minister, who thinks himself a person of so great and extensive parts, and of so many eminent qualifications, that he looks upon himself as the only person in the kingdom capable to conduct the public affairs of the nation; and therefore christening every other gentleman who has the honor to be employed in the administration by the name of Blunderer. Suppose this fine gentleman lucky enough to have gained over to his party some persons really of fine parts, of ancient families, and of great fortunes, and others of desperate views, arising from disappointed and malicious hearts; all these gentlemen, with respect to their political behavior, moved by him, and by him solely; all they say, either in private or in public, being only a repetition of the words he has put into their mouths, and a spitting out of that venom which he has infused into them; and yet we may suppose this leader not really liked by any, even of those who so blindly follow him, and hated by all the rest of mankind. We will suppose this anti-minister to be in a country where he really ought not to be, and where he could not have been but by an effect of too much goodness and mercy; yet endeavoring, with all his might and with all his art, to destroy the fountain from whence that mercy flowed. In that country suppose him continually contracting friendships and familiarities with the embassadors of those princes who at the time happen to be most at enmity with his own; and if at any time it should happen to be for the interest of any of those foreign ministers to have a secret divulged to them, which might be highly prejudicial to his native country, as well as to all its friends; suppose this foreign minister applying to him, and he answering, "I will get it you; tell me but what you want, I will endeavor to procure it for you." Upon this he puts a speech or two in the mouths of some of his creatures, or some of his new converts. What he wants is moved for in Parliament, and when so very reasonable a request as this is refused, suppose him and his creatures and tools, by his advice, spreading the alarm over the whole nation, and crying out, "Gentlemen, our country is at present involved in many dangerous difficulties, all which we would have extricated you from, but a wicked minister and a corrupt majority refused us the proper materials!" And upon "this scandalous victory," this minister became so insolent as "to plume himself in defiances!" Let us further suppose, this anti-minister to have traveled, and at every court where he was, thinking himself the greatest minister, and making it his trade to betray the secrets of every court where he had before been; void of all faith or honor, and betraying every master he ever served. I could carry my suppositions a great deal further, and I may say I mean no person now in being; but if we can suppose such a one, can there be imagined a greater disgrace to human nature than such a wretch as this?[1]

Now, to be serious, and to talk really to the subject at hand. Though the question has been already so fully and so handsomely opposed by my worthy friend under the gallery, by the learned gentleman near me, and by several others, that there is no great occasion to say any thing further against it; yet, as some new matter has been stated by some of the gentlemen who have since that time spoke upon the other side of the question, I hope the House will indulge me the liberty of giving some of those reasons which induce me to be against the motion.

In general, I must take notice, that the nature of our constitution seems to be very much mistaken by the gentlemen who have spoken in favor of this motion. It is certain that ours is a mixed government; and the perfection of our constitution consists in this, that the monarchical, aristocratical, and democratical forms of government are mixed and interwoven in ours, so as to give us all the advantages of each, without subjecting us to the dangers and inconveniences of either. The democratical form of government, which is the only one I have now occasion to take notice of, is liable to these inconveniences, that they are generally too tedious in their coming to any resolution, and seldom brisk and expeditious enough in carrying their resolutions into execution. That they are always wavering in their resolutions, and never steady in any of the measures they resolve to pursue; and that they are often involved in factions, seditions, and insurrections, which expose them to be made the tools, if not the prey of their neighbors. Therefore, in all the regulations we make with respect to our constitution, we are to guard against running too much into that form of government which is properly called democratical. This was, in my opinion, the effect of the triennial law, and will again be the effect, if it should ever be restored.

That triennial elections would make our government too tedious in all their resolves is evident; because, in such case, no prudent administration would ever resolve upon any measure of consequence till they had felt, not only the pulse of the Parliament, but the pulse of the people. The ministers of state would always labor under this disadvantage, that as secrets of state must not be immediately divulged, their enemies (and enemies they will always have) would have a handle for exposing their measures, and rendering them disagreeable to the people, and thereby carrying perhaps a new election against them, before they could have an opportunity of justifying their measures, by divulging those facts and circumstances from whence the justice and the wisdom of their measures would clearly appear.

Then it is by experience well known, that what is called the populace of every country are apt to be too much elated with success, and too much dejected with every misfortune. This makes them wavering in their opinions about affairs of state, and never long of the same mind. And as this House is chosen by the free and unbiased voice of the people in general, if this choice were so often renewed, we might expect that this House would be as wavering and as unsteady as the people usually are. And it being impossible to carry on the public affairs of the nation without the concurrence of this House, the ministers would always be obliged to comply, and consequently would be obliged to change their measures as often as the people changed their minds.

With septennial Parliaments we are not exposed to either of these misfortunes, because, if the ministers, after having felt the pulse of the Parliament (which they can always soon do), resolve upon any measures, they have generally time enough, before the new election comes on, to give the people proper information, in order to show them the justice and the wisdom of the measures they have pursued. And if the people should at any time be too much elated or too much dejected, or should, without a cause, change their minds, those at the helm of affairs have time to set them right before a new election comes on.

As to faction and sedition, I will grant, that in monarchical and aristocratical governments, it generally arises from violence and oppression; but in popular or mixed governments, it always arises from the people's having too great a share in the government. For in all countries, and in all governments, there always will be many factious and unquiet spirits, who can never be at rest, either in power or out of power. When in power they are never easy, unless every man submits entirely to their directions; and when out of power, they are always working and intriguing against those that are in, without any regard to justice, or to the interest of their country. In popular governments such men have too much game. They have too many opportunities for working upon and corrupting the minds of the people, in order to give them a bad impression of, and to raise discontents against those that have the management of the public affairs for the time; and these discontents often break out into seditions and insurrections. This would, in my opinion, be our misfortune, if our Parliaments were either annual or triennial. By such frequent elections, there would be so much power thrown into the hands of the people, as would destroy that equal mixture, which is the beauty of our constitution. In short, our government would really become a democratical government, and might from thence very probably diverge into a tyrannical. Therefore, in order to preserve our constitution, in order to prevent our falling under tyranny and arbitrary power, we ought to preserve this law, which I really think has brought our constitution to a more equal mixture, and consequently to a greater perfection, than it was ever in before that law took place.

As to bribery and corruption, if it were possible to influence, by such base means, the majority of the electors of Great Britain, to choose such men as would probably give up their liberties—if it were possible to influence, by such means, a majority of the members of this House to consent to the establishment of arbitrary power—I should readily allow, that the calculations made by the gentlemen of the other side were just, and their inference true. But I am persuaded that neither of these is possible. As the members of this House generally are, and must always be, gentlemen of fortune and figure in their country, is it possible to suppose that any of them could, by a pension or a post, be influenced to consent to the overthrow of our constitution, by which the enjoyment, not only of what he got, but of what he before had, would be rendered altogether precarious? I will allow, that with respect to bribery, the price must be higher or lower, generally in proportion to the virtue, of the man who is to be bribed; but it must likewise be granted that the humor he happens to be in at the time, and the spirit he happens to be endowed with, adds a great deal to his virtue. When no encroachments are made upon the rights of the people, when the people do not think themselves in any danger, there may be many of the electors who, by a bribe of ten guineas, might be induced to vote for one candidate rather than another. But if the court were making any encroachments upon the rights of the people, a proper spirit would, without doubt, arise in the nation; and in such a case I am persuaded that none, or very few, even of such electors, could be induced to vote for a court candidate—no, not for ten times the sum.

There may be some bribery and corruption in the nation; I am afraid there will always be some. But it is no proof of it that strangers [i. e., non-residents] are sometimes chosen; for a man may have so much natural influence over a borough in his neighborhood, as to be able to prevail with them to choose any person he pleases to recommend. And if upon such recommendation they choose one or two of his friends, who are perhaps strangers to them, it is not from thence to be inferred that the two strangers were chosen their representatives by the means of bribery and corruption.

To insinuate that money may be issued from the public treasury for bribing elections, is really something very extraordinary, especially in those gentlemen who know how many checks are upon every shilling that can be issued from thence; and how regularly the money granted in one year for the service of the nation must always be accounted for the very next session in this House, and likewise in the other, if they have a mind to call for any such account.[2] And as to gentlemen in office, if they have any advantage over country gentlemen, in having something else to depend on besides their own private fortunes, they have likewise many disadvantages. They are obliged to live here at London with their families, by which they are put to a much greater expense, than gentlemen of equal fortune who live in the country. This lays them under a very great disadvantage in supporting their interest in the country. The country gentleman, by living among the electors, and purchasing the necessaries for his family from them, keeps up an acquaintance and correspondence with them, without putting himself to any extraordinary charge. Whereas a gentleman who lives in London has no other way of keeping up an acquaintance and correspondence among his friends in the country, but by going down once or twice a year, at a very extraordinary expense, and often without any other business; so that we may conclude, a gentleman in office can not, even in seven years, save much for distributing in ready money at the time of an election. And I really believe, if the fact were narrowly inquired into, it would appear, that the gentlemen in office are as little guilty of bribing their electors with ready money, as any other set of gentlemen in the kingdom.

That there are ferments often raised among the people without any just cause, is what I am surprised to hear controverted, since very late experience may convince us of the contrary. Do not we know what a ferment was raised in the nation toward the latter end of the late Queen's reign? And it is well known what a fatal change in the affairs of this nation was introduced, or at least confirmed, by an election coming on while the nation was in that ferment.[3] Do not we know what a ferment was raised in the nation soon after his late Majesty's accession? And if an election had then been allowed to come on while the nation was in that ferment, it might perhaps have had as fatal effects as the former. But, thank God, this was wisely provided against by the very law which is now sought to be repealed.

It has, indeed, been said, that the chief motive for enacting that law now no longer exists. I can not admit that the motive they mean, was the chief motive; but even that motive is very far from having entirely ceased. Can gentlemen imagine, that in the spirit raised in the nation [against the Excise Bill] not above a twelve-month since, Jacobitism and disaffection to the present government had no share? Perhaps some who might wish well to the present establishment, did co-operate; nay, I do not know but they were the first movers of that spirit; but it can not be supposed that the spirit then raised should have grown up to such a ferment, merely from a proposition which was honestly and fairly laid before the Parliament, and left entirely to their determination! No; the spirit was perhaps begun by those who are truly friends to the illustrious family we have now upon the throne. But it was raised to a much greater height than, I believe, even they designed, by Jacobites, and such as are enemies to our present establishment; who thought they never had a fairer opportunity of bringing about what they had so long and so unsuccessfully wished for, than that which had been furnished them by those who first raised that spirit. I hope the people have now in a great measure come to themselves; and therefore I doubt not but the next elections will show, that when they are left to judge coolly, they can distinguish between the real and the pretended friends to the government. But I must say, if the ferment then raised in the nation had not already greatly subsided, I should have thought a new election a very dangerous experiment. And as such ferments may hereafter often happen, I must think that frequent elections will always be dangerous; for which reason, in so far as I can see at present, I shall, I believe, at all times think it a very dangerous experiment to repeal the Septennial Bill.


Aftermath

The motion for repeal was rejected by a large majority, and the bill has remained untouched down to the present time. Most reflecting men will agree with Mr. Macaulay, that "the repeal of the Septennial Act, unaccompanied by a complete reform of the constitution of the elective body, would have been an unmixed curse to the country."


Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^  "How must Wyndham and Pulteney," says Lord Mahon, "have quailed before this terrible invective! How must it have wrung the haughty soul of Bolingbroke!" Every word of it was true. While Secretary of State under Queen Anne, he maintained a treasonable correspondence with the Pretender, though he contrived, at the time, to conceal the evidence, which has since been made public. On the accession of George I. he fled to France, and was made the Pretender's Secretary of State. Having quarreled with his new master, after some years, such were his powers of insinuation, that he obtained a pardon from George I., and was thus restored to a country "where he could not have been, but by the effect of too much goodness and mercy." Here he did the very things described by Walpole; his friends did not deny it, or attempt his defense. As he soon after gave up the contest, and announced his intention to quit england forever, it has been understood that this speech of Walpole drove him from the country. Lord Mahon has indeed shown that he had other reasons for going; but this does not prove that Walpole's invective was not one important cause, by destroying all his hopes of future success.
  2. ^  Walpole's notorious system of bribery was certainly not conducted in so bungling a manner.
  3. ^  Allusion is here made to the ferment created by the trial of Sacheverell, and the fall of the Whig administration of Godolphin, Somers, &c., consequent thereon. This change of ministry led to the Peace of Utrecht, by which the English gained far less, and their opponents more, than had been generally expected under the Whig administration.