A Fragment. (Left unfinished, 1793.)
I presume no man in Ireland, under the degree of a Commissioner of his Majesty’s revenue, will deny that a reform in the representation of the people is necessary. The principle has been recognised by the House of Commons in the sessions of 1793, at a period of terror which superseded all dissimulation. The supineness of the nation relieved them from their panic, and they have dexterously evaded the measure by differing as to made and degree. The gentleman, who, in an unguarded moment of patriotism, pledged himself to bring it forward, has made the experiment, and discharged his conscience; the people have looked on with an apathy to be expected in those who had no interest in the event; and the question of Parliamentary reform, heretofore of some import, has been consigned to oblivion, with as little noise as if it were a common turnpike bill. As the nation assembled in arms in 1783, to procure a similar measure, and failed; as they assembled again in a civil congress, in 1785, and failed; and, finally, as opposition, without the nation, have now failed, it may be worth while to examine the cause of these repeated failures, and to see whether it lies in the nature of the measure itself, or in the principles on which, in those various attempts, it has been undertaken. If it be in the first, the sooner the truth is ascertained, the sooner sedition will lose its pretext, and the public mind be tranquilized; if in the latter, the experience of past errors may lead to a more consistent plan of future exertion.
The volunteers of Ireland, in the year 1782, had emancipated their country from a foreign yoke, and given to their Parliament the means of being independent. Every friend to what is now called rational liberty, must lament that the efforts of the democrats of that day, some of whom, indeed, seem well disposed by their present conduct to atone for their past indiscretions, were not circumscribed by those wise and salutary laws, which I mention with honour, the Gunpowder and Convention Acts. So it was, however; the people then could meet and discuss public affairs, and had arms in their hands to resist all unconstitutional attacks on their liberties. Their voice, therefore, was attended to in this country and in England, and the Revolution of 1782, was accomplished without bloodshed. They saw, however, instantaneously, the imperfection of their own measure, unless accompanied by a reform in Parliament. They could not be always in arms, and they had no hopes of operating, save by fear, on a body, in whose election they had no voice. England had, it is true, been forced by their virtue and spirit, to renounce her usurped right of binding them by the act of her Legislature; a mode, at all times odious, and now become unsafe; but she had an easier and more plausible method to effectuate her purpose. An English Secretary had the command of the Irish Treasury, to purchase Irish liberty and Irish commerce, from an Irish Parliament. Ancient villainies were acted under new names. The mischief which had been done, gratuitously, by England, was now perpetuated by venal majorities, paid with the money of Ireland, whose interests were sacrificed. By a kind of circular process of destruction, the nation was loaded with taxes, for the purpose, not of maintaining, but abridging, her natural rights. The burden was, itself, a grievance, but the purposes for which it was imposed, was a much greater grievance. The very spirit of taxation was reversed in Ireland. Money was profusely voted, not to cherish the commerce we had, and to open new branches, but to purchase restrictions and limitations in the one case, and to lay an eternal bar in our way in the other. Ireland appeared to sell her commerce and constitution to England, and to pay herself for the sacrifice with her own money; she taxed the portion she had obtained to reimburse herself for that which she renounced, and the trade of Parliament was that, of all others, which experienced the most immediate and rapid improvement from the Revolution of 1782. Gentlemen could not take it on their conscience to support Administration on the terms of the old agreement; they had now got something to sell; borough stock rose like that of the South Sea; a seat which would, the year before, fetch, in the market, a bare £1,500, was now worth £2,000; and, on an emergency, perhaps, £3,000. The Minister, on his part, scorned to haggle; he saw that, if gentlemen were obliged to pay such high prices on the one hand, it was but reasonable they should be reimbursed on the other, and his liberality was not fettered by any consideration how his grants should be made good, for he well knew that neither his country nor himself would ever be called on for a shilling. To a man, so situated, it was easy to be liberal. The arrangement was soon made, the parties perfectly understood each other, and the affairs of the nation throve accordingly.
This intercourse, however, so pleasing to him that was to give, and those who are to receive, was not equally grateful to the people, who were to make good the stipulation. They did not wish the boroughmongers of Ireland, of whose merits they were little conscious, to reap the principal benefits of a system accomplished by their labours, and at their risqué; a system, too, which those very boroughmongers had, to the last moment, opposed. The volunteers of the four Provinces met, by their delegates, in Dublin, on the 10th November, 1783, and, after solemn deliberation, agreed on a plan of reform, the great features of which were, 1st. To make residence of six months previous to the test of the writ, an indispensable qualification in all voters, whether for county, city, or borough. 2d. To open the boroughs, by increasing the number of electors in each, to two hundred in Ulster, one hundred in Munster and Connaught, and seventy in Leinster, at the least; such increase to be made by admitting all PROTESTANTS, having freeholds of forty shillings value by the year, within the precincts of the borough, or leaseholds for thirty-one years, fifteen whereof to be unexpired, of ten pounds yearly value; and, by annulling all by-laws made in limitation of franchise. 3d. To increase the number of voters in counties, by admitting, as electors, all PROTESTANTS, having leasehold interests for sixty-one years, twenty whereof to be unexpired, and of the yearly value of ten pounds. 4th. To limit the duration of Parliament to three years. 5th. To disqualify all persons holding pensions, other than for life or twenty-one years, from being elected into Parliament, and to vacate the seats of such as, being members, should accept of place or pension, other than as above, but with a capacity of being re-elected. Such is the edition of the plan of the memorable Convention of 1783.
There is no man will deny, that this plan, imperfect as it is, would have been a great benefit to the country. The abolishing occasional voters by enforcing residence, would have destroyed, what has been called, the itinerant interest of Ireland. The opening the boroughs to the degree recited, would, for so much, have weakened the aristocracy, and, by demolishing close boroughs, have prevented much corruption; at least, if they continued venal, the people would have the privilege of selling themselves, and if they had the disgrace, they would have the benefits of prostitution. The infamous traffic of borough interest for peerages, would likewise be destroyed, and a great part of the system usurpation levelled with the ground. In the opening the right of franchise to termers for years, guarded and limited as it is, a glimmering of reason appears; whatever may be the sentiments of this day, it was then thought by many a prodigious stride, and occupied the attention of the assembly for nearly two days. Even the mighty mind of one of the greatest men this country ever saw, started at the boldness of his own attempt,1 and, after apologizing for an act of justice by a plea of necessity, was glad to take shelter under an English precedent, drawn from the case of a rotten borough. So inveterate an evil is the prejudice of ancient custom! The shortening the duration of Parliament, and even the disqualification of placemen and pensioners, imperfect as it is laid down in the convention plan, would have been great constitutional advantages. It remains, now, to examine the defects of the plan, which will also demonstrate the necessity and inevitable causes of its failure.
Its first grand defect, which is equal to all the others, is, that it pays no respect whatsoever to the claims of the Catholics, an omission not accidental, but deliberate, which of itself was sufficient to destroy, and did eventually sink the plan. The inconsistency and injustice of one-fourth of the people complaining that they were not duly represented in Parliament, in the very moment when they were assisting to exclude three-fourths of their countrymen, who were not represented at all, the demanding more privileges for themselves who already enjoyed many, and, at the same time, refusing all participation to their brethren who possessed none, was so outrageous and violent, as no cause, how righteous soever otherwise, could sustain. What was the consequence? The Catholics having made a fruitless attempt to engage the justice and humanity of the Convention on their behalf, had no interest in the success or failure of their measures. Above three-fourths of the nation were alienated at one blow; the remaining fraction was divided; Government stood firm, and the Protestant volunteer convention of Ireland, representing at the least, forty thousand men, armed and disciplined, were chased with disgrace and derision from the capital – Why? Because they planned an edifice of freedom, on a foundation of monopoly; because they wished to be tyrants, while they complained that they were slaves; because, in advancing their own claims, they disregarded those of their neighbours; because they were selfish and interested, desirous to abolish abuse, so far as it affected themselves, but assisting to perpetuate it on all beneath them. Such a cause could not succeed; it fell as a suicide by its own injustice.
The principle of exclusion which pervades the whole plan, applies, though not with equal severity, to a great portion of the Protestants, as well to the whole Catholic body. It is not easy to say why, in a borough, a freehold of forty shillings, depending on a single life of eighty years, should entitle the owner, being a Protestant, to a vote, while a leasehold of nine pounds ten shillings, for a thousand years, shall be excluded. So in counties, why is no termer, being a Protestant, to vote out of an interest of less than ten pounds value, or for a term less than sixty-one years? Because in feudal times tenures for years were less honourable than tenures for life! But are these feudal times? Such will ever be the contradiction and absurdity, when men desert the plain principles of natural justice to follow the beaten track of precedent; when the law continues, after the reason is gone.
The disqualification of placemen and pensioners, as laid down in the plan, if combined with a system of reform, is something; if separated, it is nothing. Send a placeman back to his constituents! And who are his constituents? Perhaps his menial servants, or men as much dependant as those. Doubtless their virtuous indignation will be roused; they will discard the unfaithful representative, whose bread they eat and whose livery they wear, and will look abroad for some more honest and able member to do their business in Parliament. But why except pensioners for life, or a term certain. Is it that a man having received a pension by way of bribe from a Minister, will then desert him, and return to his colours, because the wages of his iniquity cannot be withdrawn? No! Hell itself could not subsist without something like principle. The pension which cannot be recalled, becomes a debt of honour on him who receives it, and every man in society would look with more contempt on him, who having sold himself to the Minister, should afterwards oppose him, or talk of his duty to his country, with the purchase of his integrity jingling in his pocket, than on the thorough-paced and never-failing drudge, who plods on through the filth and mire of every dirty job, without looking to the right or to the left, reckless of character and anxious only for his pay.
With such radical defects, it is, perhaps, not much to be regretted that the convention plan fell to the ground. From its fall we may derive a lesson which cannot be too deeply imprinted on our minds, that no system, whose basis is monopoly, ever can succeed. To ensure success, the nation must be unanimous; to procure unanimity, the interest of all must be consulted. If our minds be not expanded sufficiently to embrace an idea so simple, yet so grand, we must bend them to an acquiescence in the present system. There is no medium between complete justice and unqualified submission.
The Convention and their plan having vanished like a mist, the question of reform was now to be tried in another shape, but still on the same vicious principle of exclusion. The House of Commons had with great indignation rejected the measure, as coming from an armed body. Statesmen are never to be believed when the interest is concerned. They are indifferent as to the mode; it was the principle they feared, but the excuse was plausible and weighed with many. In consequence, the Reformers of that day shifted their ground. A new assembly was formed of delegates from all parts of the Kingdom, in a civil capacity, who, after various adjournments, and ineffectual calls on the people to co-operate with and support them, at length, in April 1785, published an address to the nation, and a plan, in substance the same as that of the Convention in 1783, on which, as containing similar excellencies and defects, it is unnecessary here to observe. So little interest did the people take in this measure, that I know not where any proceedings thereon were had in Parliament.
From this experiment in 1785, the question of reform lay, as in a trance, until the year 1791. In that year the unparalleled events, which were going on in France, roused the people from their lethargy. In the North of Ireland, a spirit of inquiry and exertion broke out, and the town of Belfast, that great fountain of political knowledge and public spirit, took the lead on this, as on every former occasion, when the independence of their country or the liberties of mankind were engaged. Men set themselves seriously to consider the causes of their former defeats, and they had not far to seek; they found them in their own injustice. They saw the folly and the inconsistency of pretending to claim a restoration of their own rights, while they were themselves parties to the exclusion of their Catholic brethren. They altered their system fundamentally. They extended the base. Their plan was reduced to three simple principles, necessarily dependant on each other, and containing the disease, the remedy, and the mode of its attainment:
First, that the weight of English influence in the Government of Ireland, was so great as to require a cordial union among all the people, to maintain that balance which was essential to the preservation of their liberties, and the extension of their commerce. Secondly, That the sole constitutional mode by which that influence could be opposed, was by a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in Parliament; And, Thirdly, That no reform was practicable, efficacious, or just, which should not equally include Irishmen of every religious persuasion. Fortunately, at the very moment when this great change was working in their minds, the petulance of Administration had, by multiplied and unnecessary insults, alienated the affections of the Catholic body, who also partook, in a great degree, of the spirit which the French revolution had kindled over Europe. The enlightened men in the two great sects which divide over the nation, cast their eyes instinctively on each other. It required little argument to show them the ruin of their former animosities, or the benefits resulting from union; that their interests, their enemies, their success, their destruction were inseparable. A new light broke forth on their minds. The prejudices of a century were subdued in six months. The Catholics, strong in the justice of their cause, and supported by their new allies, assumed a bolder tone. To the astonishment of Government, of their friends, of almost of themselves, they dared to assert the great principles of liberty.
“That no man is free who is taxed when he is not represented, or bound by laws, in the framing of which, he has no power to give, or withhold his assent.”
Principles so just, compelled their own acknowledgement. Government here and in England were forced to yield to a spirit, of the extent of which they were able to form no calculation. The conjuncture was favourable, the people were resolute, and the Catholic bill of 1793, which restored so many important privileges, and, above all, the elective franchise to that long oppressed body, will remain a splendid monument, as it was the first fruit of the union of Irishmen.
By this qualified emancipation of the Catholics, one great impediment in the way of reform is, at least, considerably diminished. The accusation of inconsistency and injustice, can no longer be affixed on the advocates for the measure. In what may be called the new theory of Irish politics, the first step in the system is ascertained, the remaining ones will follow in their order, if not instantaneously, yet certainly. A great difficulty has been surmounted, which if not removed, must forever have sunk all further attempts, as it did all antecedent ones, and the success of the people in the measure which they have obtained, has given them an earnest and a security of a success, in those which they have yet to seek, if by their own folly and in discretion and premature exertion, they do not retard, and perhaps destroy, the noblest cause in which ever a nation was embarked. But of this hereafter. I proceed historically to the next plan of reform, which is also the last which has been submitted to inspection, on the authority of any body or individual, in a public capacity; I mean the bill of reform, presented and dismissed in the course of the last session.
1 Mr. Flood’s speech, Convention debates, page 87.