The Wounds given to the Constitution

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The Wounds given to the Constitution
by John Wilkes
The speech to the House of Commons by John Wilkes MP arguing that his expulsion from Parliament by the Government should be expunged.

The motion which I shall have the honour of submitting to the House affects, in my opinion, the very vitals of this Constitution, the great primary sources of the power of the people, whom we represent, and by whose authority only, delegated to us for a time, we are a part of the legislative body of this kingdom. The proceedings of the last Parliament in the business of the Middlesex elections gave a just alarm to almost every elector in the nation. The fatal precedents then attempted to be established were considered as a direct attack on the inalienable rights of the people. The most respected bodies in the kingdom expressed their abhorrence of the measure: they proceeded so far as to petition the Crown for the dissolution of Parliament, as having been guilty of a flagrant abuse of their trust. Above sixty thousand of our fellow subjects carried their complaints to the foot of the throne; a number surely deserving the highest respect from a minister, if his whole attention had not been engrossed by the small number of the sixty thousand who return the majority of members to this House.

The people, sir, were in a ferment, which has not yet subsided. They made my cause their own, for they saw the powers of Government exerted against the Constitution, which was wounded through my sides; and the envenomed shafts of a wicked administration pointed at our laws and liberties, no less at a hated individual. The plan was carried on for some years with a spirit of malevolence and rancour which would have disgraced the very worst, but with a perseverance which would have done honour to the best cause. I do not mean, sir, to go through the variety of persecutions and injuries which that person suffered, I hope, with a becoming fortitude. I have forgiven them. All the great powers of the state at one time appeared combined to pour their vengence on me. Even imperial Jove pointed his thunderbolts, red with uncommon wrath, at my devoted head. I was scorched, but not consumed. The broad shield of the law protected me. A generous public, and my noble friends, the freeholders of Middlesex, the ever-steady friends of liberty and their country, poured balm into my wounds; they are healed, Scarcely a scar remains: but I feel, I deeply feel, the wounds given to the Constitution; they are still bleeding; this House only can heal them: they only can restore the Constitution to its former state of purity, health, and vigour.

In the first formation of this government, in the original settlement of our Constitution, the people expressly reserved to themselves a very considerable part of the legislative power, which they consented to share jointly with a King and House of Lords. From the great population of our island, this power could not be exercised personally, and therefore the many were compelled to delegate that power to a few; who thus became their deputies and agents only, or their representatives. It follows directly, from the very idea of choice, that such choice must be free and uncontrolled, admitting of no restrictions but the law of the land, to which King and lords are equally subject, and what must arise from the nature of the trust. A peer of Parliament, for instance, cannot be elected a member of the House of Commons, because he already forms part of another branch of the same legislative body. A lunatic has a natural incapacity. Other instances might be mentioned, but these two are sufficient. The freedom of election is, then, the common right of the people, their fair and just share of power; and I hold it to be the most glorious inheritance of every subject of this realm, the noblest and, I trust, the most solid part of that beautiful fabric, the English Constitution.

But, sir, if you can expel whom you please and reject those disagreeable to you, the House will be self-created and self-existing. The original idea of your representing the people will be lost. The consequences of such a principle are to the highest degree alarming. A more forcible engine of despotism cannot be put in the hand of any minister. I wish gentlemen would attend to the plain consequences of such proceedings, and consider how they may be brought home to themselves. A member hated or dreaded by a minister is accused of any crime; for instance, of having written a pretended libel. I mention this as the crime least likely to be committed by most of the members of this House. No proof whatever is given on oath before you, because you cannot administer an oath. The minister invades immediately the rights of juries. Before any trial, he gets the paper voted a libel, and the member he wishes expelled to be the author – which in fact you are not competent to try. Expulsion means, as is pretended, incapacity. The member is adjudged incapable; he cannot be re-elected, and thus is he excluded from Parliament. A minister by such manoeuvres may garble a House of Commons till not a single enemy of his own, or friend of his country, is left here, and the representation of the people is in a great degree lost.

Corruption had not lent despotism wings to fly so high in the time of Charles I, or the minister of that day would have been contented with expelling Hampden and the four other heroes, because they had immediately been judged incapable, and he would thereby have incapacitated them from thwarting in Parliament the arbitrary measures of a wicked court. Upon all these considerations, in order to quiet the minds of the people, to restore our violated Constitution to its original purity, to vindicate the injured rights of this country in particular, and of all the electors of this kingdom, and that not the least trace of the violence and injustice of the last Parliament may disgrace our records, I humbly move, ‘That the resolution of this House of the seventeenth of February, 1769, “That John Wilkes, Esq., having been in this session of Parliament expelled this House, was and is incapable of sitting in the present Parliament,” be expunged from the journals of this House, as being subversive of the rights of the whole body of electors of this kingdom.’

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.