Select British Eloquence/Lord Belhaven
The author of this speech belonged to the Hamilton family. He was one of the old Presbyterian lords, of high education, especially in classical literature; lofty in his demeanor; dauntless in spirit; and wholly devoted to the peculiar interests of his country. The speech owes much of its celebrity to the circumstances under which it was delivered. It embodies the feelings of a proud and jealous people, when called upon to surrender their national independence, and submit to the authority of the British Parliament.
A century had now elapsed since the union of the English and Scottish crowns in the person of James I., and Scotland still remained a distinct kingdom, with its own Parliament, its own judicial system, its own immemorial usages which had all the force of law. This state of things, though gratifying to the pride of the Scottish people, was the source of endless jealousies and contentious between the two countries; and, as commonly happens in such cases, the weaker party suffered most. Scotland was governed by alternate corruption and force. Her nobility and gentry were drawn to England in great numbers by the attractions of the Court, as the seat of fashion, honor, and power. The nation was thus drained of her wealth; and the drain became greater, as her merchants and tradesmen were led to transfer their capital to the sister kingdom, in consequence of the superior facilities for trade which were there enjoyed.
It was now apparent that Scotland could never flourish until she was permitted to share in those commercial advantages, from which she was debarred as a distinct country, by the Navigation Act of England. The Scotch were, therefore, clamorous in their demands for some arrangement to this effect. But the English had always looked with jealousy upon any intermeddling with trade, on the part of Scotland. They had crushed her African and India Company by their selfish opposition, and had left her Darien settlement of twelve hundred souls to perish for want of support and protection; so that few families in the Lowlands had escaped the loss of a relative or friend. Exasperated by these injuries, and by the evident determination of the English to cut them off from all participation in the benefits of trade, the Scotch were hurried into a measure of alarming aspect for the safety of the empire. Noble and burgher, Jacobite and Presbyterian, were for once united. There was one point where England was vulnerable. It was the succession to the crown. This had been settled by the English Parliament on the Protestant line in the house of Hanover, and the fullest expectations were entertained that the Parliament of Scotland would readily unite in the same measure. Instead of this, the Scotch, in 1704, passed their famous Act of Security, in which they threw down the gauntlet to England, and enacted, that "the same person should be incapable of succeeding in both kingdoms, unless a free communication of trade, the benefits of the Navigation Act, and liberty of the Plantations [i. e., of trading with the British West Indies and North America] was first obtained." They also provided conditionally for a separate successor, and passed laws for arming the whole kingdom in his defense.
It was now obvious that concessions must be made on both sides, or the contest be decided by the sword. The ministry of Queen Anne, therefore, proposed that commissioners from the two kingdoms should meet at London, to devise a plan of Union, which should be mutually advantageous to the two countries. This was. accordingly done, in the month of April, 1706; and, after long negotiations, it was agreed, that the two kingdoms should be united into one under the British Parliament, with the addition of sixteen Scottish peers to the House of Lords, and of forty-five Scottish members to the House of Commons; that the Scotch should be entitled to all the privileges of the English in respect to trade, and be subject to the same excise and duties; that Scotland should receive £398,000 as a compensation or "equivalent" for the share of liability she assumed in the English debt of £20,000,000; and that the churches of England and Scotland respectively should be confirmed in all their rights and privileges, as a fundamental condition of the Union.
These arrangements were kept secret until October, 1706, when the Scottish Parliament met to consider and decide on the plan proposed. The moment the Articles were read in that body, and given to the public in print, they were met with a burst of indignant reprobation from every quarter. A federal union which should confer equal advantages for trade, was all that the Scotch in general had ever contemplated: an incorporating union, which should abolish their Parliament and extinguish their national existence, was what most Scotchmen had never dreamed of. Nor is it surprising, aside from all considerations of national honor, that such a union should have been regarded with jealousy and dread. "No past experience of history," says Hallam, "was favorable to the absorption of a lesser state (at least where the government partook so much of a republican form) in one of superior power and ancient rivalry. The representation of Scotland in the united Legislature, was too feeble to give any thing like security against the English prejudices and animosities, if they should continue or revive. The Church of Scotland was exposed to the most apparent perils, brought thus within the power of a Legislature so frequently influenced by one which held her, not as a sister, but rather as a bastard usurper of a sister's inheritance; and though her permanence was guaranteed by the treaty, yet it was hard to say how far the legal competence of Parliament might hereafter be deemed to extend, or, at least, how far she might be abridged of her privileges and impaired in her dignity."
It was with sentiments like these that, when the first article of the treaty was read, Lord Belhaven arose, and addressed the Parliament of Scotland in the following speech. It is obviously reported in a very imperfect manner, and was designed merely to open the discussion which was expected to follow, and not to enter at large into the argument. It was a simple burst of feeling, in which the great leader of the country party, who was equally distinguished for "the mighty sway of his talents and the resoluteness of his temper," poured out his emotions in view of that act of parricide, as he considered it, to which the Parliament was now called. He felt that no regard to consequences, no loss or advancement of trade, manufactures, or national wealth, ought to have the weight of a feather, when the honor and existence of his country were at stake. He felt that Scotland, if only united, was abundantly able to work out her own salvation. These two thoughts, therefore—national honor and national union—constitute the burden of his speech.