Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Your vote and interest

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Confound the Ancients!” exclaimed Puff, in “The Critic,” “they’ve stolen all my best thoughts.” Let us only look back far enough, and we shall find that those who are ready to assist us in the tinkering of our Constitution, have also reason to complain of the pilfering propensities of their forefathers. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun! Universal suffrage is as old as the Saxons; annual Parliaments date nearly as far back. A rate-paying franchise existed before the battle of Agincourt; and County Court judges sate and dispensed cheap law when Alfred the Great was king. The elements of our pet system of Reformatories even may be traced amongst the crumbling dust of ruined monasteries. The advance of civilisation has produced many novel details for legislation; but in nearly every instance, when we come to reform the system of our Government or law, we do not make a new model; we merely scrape away the corruption of the Middle Ages, which has defaced the old one invented by our sturdy Saxon ancestry.

England is at one and the same time the most liberal and the most conservative of nations. We stretch forward one hand to grasp a reform, and grope behind our backs with the other to find a precedent. No people hugs its old customs, its ancient likes and dislikes, so closely as the English. Are we wrong, then, in supposing at this juncture, when all classes are so anxiously discussing what is to be the extent of the parliamentary franchise in the future, that a sketch of it, as it existed in the past, long before the memory of our friend Mr. Minkinshaw,[1] may not be devoid of interest to our readers?

Hallam lays it down that there are four different theories as to the ancient right of voting. He says: “1. The original right, as enjoyed by boroughs represented in the Parliaments of Edward I., and all of later creation, where one of a different nature has not been expressed in the charter from which they derive the privilege, was in the inhabitant householders resident in the borough, and paying scot and lot—by those words including local rates, and probably general taxes. 2. The right sprung from the tenure of certain freehold lands, or burgesses, within the borough, and did not belong to any but such tenants. 3. The right derived from charters of incorporation, and belonging to the community or freemen of the corporate body. 4. A right not extending to the generality of freemen, but limited to the governing part, or municipal magistracy.” The third of these, as regards the original parliamentary boroughs and many enfranchised by the successors of Edward I., was clearly an usurpation; and the fourth was a further usurpation upon it—an abuse upon an abuse—as repugnant to a Constitutionalist as colour blazoned upon colour would be to a herald.

The early parliaments were merely the successors of the old “mickle gemot,” or Council of the Saxons; and we shall learn by whom its members were elected, from the following translation of the preamble of an ancient institute: “Withred, the King of Canterbury, in the fifth year of his reign, and the sixth day of August, in a place called Berghamstyde, gathered the principal people to Council: there were there all the clergy, and the herdsfolk, when the chiefs and the congregation established these laws.”

In the oldest writs of election now procurable, there is contained no limitation of the franchise. As time wore on, the people no longer attended the Council in a body, but they all had a voice in the election of the delegate who was to represent them there. The following is a translation of a writ of election for the county of Kent, issued in the twelfth year of Henry IV.: “This Indenture made at Canterbury, on Monday the next before the Feast of the Apostles Simon and Jude, next following after the receipt of the writ of the lord the king annexed to this Indenture. Between John Darrel, Sheriff of the said county, and R. C., V. B., J. B., J. D., I. L., W. L., &c., who to choose knights and citizens for the Parliament of the lord the king, to be holden at Westminster on the morrow of All Souls that next shall be, were empowered by virtue of the writ of the same the lord the king, in this behalf, addressed to the same sheriff, by the assent of all that county, have chosen Reginald Pympe and Willian Notaben, knights for the community of the aforesaid county; William Hinckman and William Roe, citizens, for the community of the City of Canterbury; Roger Langford and John Everard, citizens, for the community of the City of Rochester. In Witness, &c.” (Here follow the signatures.) Something very like Universal Suffrage prevailed, then, in those times, every one but the serfs having a vote. Indeed, the statute of Henry VI., which limits the right of voting in counties to freeholders of forty shillings a-year, acknowledges as much in its preamble, which recites: “Whereas, the election of knights of shires to come to Parliament of our lord the king in many counties of the realm of England have now of late been made by very great outrageous and excessive numbers of people dwelling within the same counties, of the which most part was people of small substance and no value, whereof every one of them pretended a voice equivalent as to such election to be made with the most worthy knights and esquires dwelling within the same counties, whereby manslaughter, riots, batteries, and divisions among the gentlemen and other people of the same counties shall (observe the caution of this) very likely arise and be, unless convenient and due remedy be provided: Be it enacted, &c.”

Not a word is there to be found in ancient writs of the franchise being vested in municipal corporations. In Rochester and Canterbury the right remained in the freemen at large; but in the boroughs of Wilton and Devizes, which are mentioned in a writ for the county of Wilts, issued in the reign of Henry the Fifth, in precisely the same terms that we have quoted respecting the two former cities in the writ for Kent—the franchise was usurped by a mayor, recorder, five aldermen, three capital burgesses, and eleven common councilmen in the former; and by a mayor, recorder, ten magistrates, and twenty-four common councilmen in the latter.

Many places had writs issued to them in one reign, and were unrepresented in another; and then summoned to elect members in a third—the new charter directing the manner in which the election was to be held. Devizes was made a parliamentary borough in the 23rd year of Edward the First. It was discontinued as such, in the 20th of Edward the Second; and restored to its former position in the 4th of Edward the Third. Since then, down to the year 1832, it returned members to Parliament; but the process under which the corporation usurped the franchise, is shrouded in mystery. No writ subsequent to the one we have mentioned, granting the right of election to a class, could disfranchise those in whom it was originally vested; for, says Lord Coke, “if the king newly incorporate an ancient borough, which before sent burgesses to Parliament, and granteth that certain selected burgesses shall make election of the burgesses of Parliament, where all the burgesses elected before—this charter taketh not away the election of the other burgesses. And so, if a city or borough hath power to make ordinances, they cannot make an ordinance that a less number shall elect burgesses for the Parliament, than made the election before; for free elections of members of the High Court of Parliament are ‘pro bono publico,’ and not to be compared to other cases of election of mayors, bailiffs, &c., of corporations.” Hear this, Mr. Bright!

But the corporations did monopolise the franchise and make ordinances in defiance of all law, and what happened at Devizes happened to scores of other boroughs throughout the kingdom. In the populous city of Bath, which has sent members to Parliament ever since there was a Parliament to send them to, the franchise was usurped by a self-elected corporation of eighteen persons, mostly doctors! Andover, Portsmouth, Salisbury, and Winchester were in a similar predicament.

Very early in our history—even when Parliament was a mere machine for taxing the country—the position of a member was an object of ambition and of bribery. As the power of the legislature increased, and political parties were formed, contests for the office of “Parliament man” became spirited and frequent, the issue not being confined, as at present, to what candidate should be elected, but involving intricate questions as to the right of voting, and the due appointment of the returning officer. Thus there was frequently a double return for a borough. The mayor would assume the post of returning officer, and a candidate chosen by the corporation would be elected. The bailiff of the lord of the manor, or some rival functionary, would also claim to make the return, and another candidate who had received the suffrages of the householders, or other class claiming to possess the franchise, would be sent to Parliament. The House of Commons, as a body (not a committee of it, as at present), had to decide which return was valid, and its judgment in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred was guided, not according to the rights and wrongs of the case (such considerations being quite out of place in the corrupt legislatures of our early Hanoverian monarchs), but by the politics of the competitors for senatorial honours, and the good things which a subservient member could command from the ministry he served. So, if a Tory corporation made a return when Harley held the helm of State, and with false compass steered to pick up the king “over the water,” the chances were that the franchise would be held to be in the Jacobite mayor, aldermen, and common council; that the bailiff was an imprudent impostor, and that the Whig householders had no voice in the election. A return made by the same authorities in the days of Walpole would have been very rapidly disposed of. It would be held that the householders, and no one but the householders, had the right of voting—provided they sent the ministerial candidates to Westminster. The mayor would be snubbed, and made to give way to the bailiff, who would be installed as the lawful returning officer—so long as he returned a Whig! The Cabinet and the Opposition mustered their forces at the trial (?) of an election petition, as though some important principle of State-craft were in question; and if the ministerial nominee was not declared duly elected, it was a broad hint to his patrons that their reign was over. The fall of Sir Robert Walpole was completed by an adverse majority of one in a disputed return for the borough of Chippenham!

Thus the most hopeless confusion and uncertainty reigned in the boroughs as to the true nature of their franchise. The journals of the House of Commons contain five contradictory resolutions respecting the right of voting in Dorchester, and in other places equal uncertainty prevailed. There was no fixed principle of voting. Hardly any two boroughs had precisely the same franchise. In one it was vested in the corporation alone—in another in the corporation and a select number of burgesses. In a third it was held by all householders. In a fourth the pot-wallers were entitled to it. The holders of burgage tenures formed the electoral body in a fifth. The freemen, including in one instance the husbands of the daughters of freemen, in a sixth.[2] The payers of scot and lot in a seventh; and in an eighth, two or more of the foregoing qualifications in combination, gave the right of voting. The boroughs knew what they were, but could not guess what they might become, when a change of Ministry reversed the position of parties. What they had been formed no precedent for the future, until, in the year 1729, an Act of Parliament was passed, making the last decision of the House of Commons final—no matter how corrupt or wrong that decision might have been.

Thus was the nature of the franchise fixed; but at every contested election vehement disputes arose as to who were entitled to exercise it. It was vested in the freemen—it was vested in the pot-wallers: but who were freemen, pot-wallers, &c., &c.? There was at that time no register of electors, as at present, to be referred to as conclusive evidence of the right of individuals to vote. Loud and angry arguments took place at the polling-places, and conflicting and corrupt decisions were given in Parliament, until an Act, passed through the exertions of Mr. Grenville, taking the jurisdiction of trying election petitions from the House at large, and vesting it in a committee of its members, caused disputed returns to be a little more fairly dealt with.

I will now shortly sketch the nature of the franchises already mentioned. The corporations I have alluded to were the old municipalities—those utterly effete and corrupt communities which were swept away by the Municipal Corporations Act. They were, for the most part, self-elected, and when associated with the “freemen” in the enjoyment of the franchise, were naturally desirous that the number of those entitled to share with them the profits of an election should be as few as decency would permit. They contended that they alone had the right of making freemen, and they made them only by interest or compulsion. It was frequently asserted on the other hand, that all resident householders, paying scot and lot for a year and a day, were freemen, and entitled to vote at the election of members for Parliament. A great contest took place upon this question in the borough of Rye. One committee decided for the inhabitants, and another (upon appeal) for the corporation; and so the franchise remained in the hands of the latter, and those whom they chose to admit—in all about forty-seven individuals—down to the passing of the Reform Bill. Until the right of voting was taken away from revenue and other Government officers, every “freeman” in this borough was in the service of either the Customs, the Excise, or the Post Office. Most of these situations were sinecures, and those who held them were paid by the nation to vote for the Minister. “Freedom” was generally acquired either by birth, apprenticeship, or purchase, and the “freemen,” as a body, formed as corrupt a class as existed in the times of universal corruption.

A “pot-waller,” or “pot-wallopper,” was one who had a right to boil a pot within the borough, and if he had possessed this right for six months preceding an election, and had not been in the receipt of parochial relief, he had a vote. Taunton was a pure pot-walling borough, and one of the most corrupt in the kingdom. It is only very recently that the pot-wallers there have been convinced that they are not entitled—as of right—to a sovereign a-head at every election!

The burgage-tenures which so puzzled Mr. Minkinshaw arose out of the division of the soil of England by the Saxons. The land was divided by lot; and its possessors, for purposes of protection and government, bound themselves to perform certain services, not to any individual, but to the community; estates thus created were called allodial estates, or estates in frank or free pledge. As time wore on, some of the chief men disposed of part of their estates to others of lesser degree, who became their vassals; but the smallest allodial tenant was always a freeman. He was known in the Saxon tongue as a borse-holder (house-holder), from which we have the corruption burgess and burgage-holder. Gatton, Old Sarum, and Midhurst, were pure burgage-tenure boroughs. In the first, there was a house and one voter; in the others there was neither house nor inhabitant. The manner in which voters were made and unmade in boroughs possessing this franchise, and also how scot and lot electors were manufactured and maintained, has appeared in a previous number.

In the year 1832, before the passing of the Reform Bill, the House of Commons elected under these franchises, consisted of 658 members, of whom 152 were returned by less than 100 voters and 88 by less than 50 a-piece! Eighty-nine peers were patrons of 133 pocket-boroughs in the United Kingdom, returning 175 members. Sixty-five commoners had ninety-nine seats at their disposal in seventy boroughs, and thirty-nine members were nominated by self-elected corporations. The minister of the day had six boroughs returning nine members in all under his thumb. The Scotch counties—all under the domination of the lairds—sent thirty members. So that in the election of nearly four hundred members—more than half the House of Commons—the voice of the people of England was never heard.

Such was the state of the representation not thirty years ago! Who knows but that, upon the eve of a third Reform Bill, the editor of the Sixtieth Volume of "Once a Week," may accept an article from some author—now in his long clothes—finding quite as much to condemn in the new system we are about to found, as I have in that old one of which I now take my leave.

Albany Fonblanque, Jun.

  1. See page 170, No. 34.
  2. This privilege was granted by Queen Anne to the people of Bristol, in requital of the hospitality which they had shown her husband, Prince George of Denmark. “She asked them,” says the Spectator, “what privilege she should confer upon them, and they requested this privilege because their women were so ugly!” A lady who could confer a vote in a city where a contested election cost a thousand pounds a day, was not likely to die an old maid. I must add, however, that from personal observation I have come to the conclusion that my fellow-countrywomen on the banks of the Avon are no longer qualified for a renewal of this privilege in Lord John Russell’s new Reform Bill.