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Parliamentary Reform-Old House of Commons-Rotten Boroughs-Old Sarum-French Revolution of 1830-Rally for Reform-Wellington Resigns-Grey in Power-Ministerial Bill Defeated-New Parliament Summoned-Commons Pass the Bill-Brougham's Speech in Lords-Peers Throw out the Bill-Mrs. PartingtonRiots-Again Bill Passed by Commons, and again Defeated by Peers-Ministers Resign-Are Recalled-The Bill becomes a Law.
THE House of Commons was instituted in the thirteenth century, when Henry III summoned the counties of the realm to send knights, and the principal cities and boroughs to send citizens and burgesses, to Parliament. This was done rather to afford him a check upon his arrogant barons, and to procure the sanction of "the Commons," (as the untitled propertyholders were called,) to certain subsidies, than to vest.in them any independent functions. But, this "third estate" tinuing to be summoned in subsequent reigns, its influence increased with the wealth and intelligence of the middle classes, whom it represented, till what was long regarded by them as a burden came to be cherished as a right and a privilege; and a supple instrument, originally used by the monarch to strengthen his prerogative, gradually became the weapon of the democracy, to cripple its powers and limit its boundaries.
At first, all the counties, and the largest cities and boroughs, were summoned. Subsequently, as other towns rose to importance, they were added to the list. In process of time, as trade fluctuated, drying up old channels and opening new, many of the ancient cities and burghs fell into decay. Still,
they sent representatives to Parliament. In 1509, the House consisted of 298 members, many of them even then representing very small constituencies. From that period, down to the passage of the Reform bill, no place was disfranchised, (except two or three for bribery,) while 255 members were added (including Scotland and excluding Ireland,) by the creation. of new and the revival of old burghs. During the six centuries which the House had existed, what changes had passed over the kingdom, sweeping away the foundations of once populous marts, and causing others to rise on barren wastes!
Here we have the origin of "rotten boroughs;" " i. e., towns which, centuries ago, had a flourishing existence, continuing to send representatives to Parliament long after any human being had made his local habitation therein, and whose very names would have perished from the land, but that they were annually recorded on the Parliamentary rolls. One of these has been immortalized by the discussions on the Reform billOld Sarum. Not a soul had dwelt there since the Tudors ascended the English throne-not a tenement had been seen there since Columbus discovered America-nor could the vestiges of its ruins be traced by the antiquarian eye of a Champollion or a Stephens. This sand-hill, in 1832, sent as many members to Parliament as Lancashire, with a population of a million and a half. Other represented boroughs were nearly in like condition; others could display their half score or more of decayed hovels. In the case of these rotten boroughs, the owner of the land, or of the old franchises, who was generally a wealthy Peer, sometimes an aspiring London attorney, occasionally an avaricious stock-jobbing Jew, by virtue of his single vote designated the representatives. Subject to the mutations of other real estate and franchises, they were transferable by private bargain, or auction, or sheriff's sale, or will, or assignment of a bankrupt's effects, or as sɔcurity for a gambling debt. Not only were they instruments of corruption, but ludicrous libels on the claim of the House of
Commons to represent the people, and striking illustrations of extreme inequality in the distribution of political power.
An East India Prince, the Nabob of Arcot, once owned burghs entitled to twenty members of Parliament; and through his English agent, who held the parchment titles, he sent that number to the Commons. A waiter at a celebrated gaminghouse sat for years in Parliament in this wise. He loaned money to a “noble” gambler, who gave him security for the loan on a rotten borough, which sent a member. The waiter elected himself to the seat. In the debates on the Reform bill, it was stated that certain places, with an aggregate population of less than 5,000, returned one hundred members. Old Sarum, Gatton, Newtown, and other decayed boroughs, exerted a controlling influence on British legislation, long after some of them had ceased to be the abodes of humanity; whilst Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, and other important towns, swarming with life, and rich in arts and manufactures, had not a single representative. The elective franchise was very restricted, and generally based on absurd qualifications. Scores of members were chosen by close corporations, while others were designated by single individuals. The essence of the system is concentrated in the general fact, that, in 1832, less than two hundred persons, mostly of the "privileged orders," actually returned a majority of the House of Commons.
So enormous an evil was not without an occasional mite of good. Though these coroneted traffickers in Parliamentary seats usually bestowed them on favorites of their own class, there were some notable exceptions to this rule. John Horne Tooke, the most radical of all reformers, sat for Old Sarum, the rottenest of all rotten boroughs. Brougham entered the Commons through the narrow door of a "nomination borough,' though he left it with the plaudits of the largest constituency in the kingdom. Burke, Romilly, Mackintosh, and other illustrious and liberal names, were indebted to close corporations for their introduction to Senatorial fame.
This system, the slow growth of centuries, was in full play at the ascension of William IV. It was destined to a speedy overthrow. Early in 1830, a simultaneous movement towards the long-deferred reform was made throughout Great Britain and Ireland. George IV died, and William IV ascended the throne, on the 26th of June, 1830. In the following month, the people of France rose and drove the Bourbons from their kingdom. The news descended upon the already excited mind of England like an animating spirit. The mass heaved with the throes of new life. The reformers held meetings in every important town, to congratulate their brethren of France on the expulsion of the elder Bourbons. Drawn together by the bonds of a common sympathy, they realized how numerous and powerful a body they were. The election for a new Parliament occurred in September. Liberal candidates sailed with the popular current. The result showed a great diminution of the supporters of Wellington and Peel. Parliament met in November. The cry of "Reform !" was ringing from the "unions" and " associations," which the last four months had seen established in every considerable town and village in the country. The king's speech made no allusion to the sub ject that absorbed all minds. In the exciting debate on the address to the throne, Earl Grey came out boldly for a radical reform in Parliament. Wellington, in reply, assumed the most hostile ground, declaring that, "so long as he held any station in the Government, he should resist to the utmost any such measure.” The announcement that ministers were determined to cling to a system whose rotting props had been for years falling away, astonished and inflamed the Opposition. Fifteen days afterwards, ministers were brought to their senses, by being placed in a minority in the lower House, on a financial question. The next day, the Iron Duke in the Peers, and the supple Peel in the Commons, announced that they had relinquished the helm of affairs!
The Duke of Wellington resigned on the 16th of November,
1830. The King immediately authorized Lord Grey to form an administration, upon the basis of Parliamentary reformthe first liberal ministry, with the exception of a few turbulent months, for sixty-five years! Lords Grey, Durham, John Russell, Althorp, Lansdowne, Holland, and Mr. Brougham, were its leading spirits; its subordinates being made up of the Melbournes, the Palmerstons, and other converted Canningites. Parliament adjourned till February, to afford the new Cabinet time to perfect its plan. While Downing Street was anxiously cogitating the details of the great measure, its friends stimulated public sentiment in every part of the empire. On the 1st of March, 1831, Lord John Russell brought forward, in the House of Commons, the ministerial plan for a reform in Parliament. A summary of its leading provisions, as finally adopted, is subjoined.
It was a compromise between representation and prescription, on the three principles of disfranchisement, enfranchisement, and extension of the suffrage. The number of members, 658, was not altered, but their distribution was changed. The ultra rotten borough system was exploded. In England, 56 burghs were wholly disfranchised, 31 others partially, whilst 41 new towns were enfranchised, part receiving two members, others one. The large cities and counties received an increase of members. The same principles were less extensively applied to Scotland and Ireland.
The qualifications of electors were essentially modified, and the aggregate more than doubled. Property, in most cases, still continued to be the basis of the right of suffrage The greatest change was in the cities and burghs. In those, throughout the United Kingdom, the occupier of a building of the yearly value of £10, whether he owned or rented it, could vote for the local members. The ancient rights of voters, in burghs not disfranchised, were partially preserved, but provision was made for their gradual extinction. It was supposed that the bill added more than half a million to the number of