Mr Hampden's speech in defence of the Peerage Bill (1719)

Pages 33-42

The History and Proceedings of the House of Commons: Volume 9, 1734-1737. Originally published by Chandler, London, 1742.

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Mr Hampden's SPEECH In Defence of the PEERAGE-BILL.

[See Page 202.]

Mr Speaker,

AS a Member of this House, I consider myself as the Trustee of those whom I represent; engaged in Honour to guard those important Trusts that are reposed in me, as well as to defend the Privileges of the House I belong to. By this Rule I measure my Duty, that whatever new Law is contrary to, or destructive of, those Trusts, I am bound to oppose it: but that whatever new Law is agreeable to them, considered in their natural Intent and Meaning, and consistent with the Dignity and Privileges of our House, I am at Liberty to vote for it; nay, I am indeed obliged to do so, if it be found for the Good of the whole Community, or to have any Tendency towards making the future Condition of those I represent, and those with whom I fit, better and happier.

'I make no Exception here, even of those Laws which more nearly touch the principal Branches of our Constitution, provided they touch not the Vitals and Essentials of it. Every new Law is certainly an Alteration of the Constitution in some Sense, as it gives or takes away some Power or Privilege not enjoyed, or enjoyed before, by the Crown. But these new Laws added, or old ones abolished, every Day, do not affect the Vitals of the Constitution. The King is still the Executor of the Laws, tho' those Alterations make a daily Change in his executive Power; but in the Case before us, because the Bill propos'd is expresly declared to be designed to alter the present Condition of the House of Lords, and because that House is one of the States of the Realm; this seems to have affected some Members, as if it were something more essential to our Constitution than the Alteration of the King's Power, with his own Consent, in any other new Law. But as the Essence of the Constitution consists not in having the Number of Lords unbounded, any more than the Number of the Commons; the Limitation of the Royal Power, with Respect to this, is no more an Alteration of the Constitution in its Essentials, than the Alteration of many other old Laws or Customs. The King's Power of adding new Lords in infinitum, is indeed by the Intent of this Bill stopt and cut off. But there still remains a House of Lords, and in the Crown the Prerogative of making new Lords upon all Extinctions and Failures that may be. And this being no more than the turning an unlimited Power into a limited, or an Alteration of the Exercise of one of the Powers of the Crown, it cannot possibly be said to disturb or affect our Constitution in its essential Parts.

The Design of the Bill in short is this, 'That, on the Part of Scotland, in lieu of Sixteen Elective Peers, Twenty five shall have Hereditary Seats in Parliament, to be filled up, upon any Extinction, out of the Peers of Scotland; and that on the Part of England not more than Six Peers may be added by the King, to the present Number; and all Failures to be supplied by the Crown, out of the natural born Subjects of Great Britain.' 'This is the Design of the Bill: And the only Point of Moment is, Whether this Alteration be of that Nature as that it can be honourable and becoming us, as Members of the House of Commons, to concur in it.

'In the first Part of this Design which relates to Scotland, the increasing the Number of Scotch Peers, by the Addition of Nine, is the reasonable Consequence of the Increase of English Lords since the Union, in which it was always designed that some Proportion should be kept between the Lords of each Part of the Kingdom. Nor can we, in the whole, think this Proportion too great. The changing their Election into Hereditary Succession, is to accommodate their Condition to the Condition of those Peers with whom they sit. Besides, by this Means the Heads of the Noblest Families in Scotland may sit in Parliament; and they particularly who have former Claims by Patents may be called thither, to prevent the fatal Consequences of a repeated Refusal of those Claims, which is universally in that Country look'd upon as an open Breach of the Union.

'I have heard several of the Scots Peers declare in the strongest Terms possible, that they would never have submitted to sit by way of Election, but in Hopes of meeting with such a favourable Opportunity of altering it; and that all their Acquaintance, and their Principals themselves, knew their Sentiments upon this Subject. And if such an Alteration, supposing it for the better, as it makes the Scots Lords much more independent upon Courts and Ministers, ought not to be made without the express Consent of their Principals, who have a present Personal Right to be Electors and Elected, I would only propose then, that it is impossible to come to such a Consent, because the Argument being taken from Personal Right, will make the express Consent of every individual Peer necessary, and not only the Consent of a Majority: That the Peers not nominated at first have still a Chance of being Hereditary Peers of Parliament upon any Failure; which is certainly a more honourable Condition than their present: And that the Union itself, of which this is only a Circumstance, was effected by elected Persons altering, in the most essential and important Points, the Condition and State of their Electors, without any Consent of theirs, obtained or sought after, or supposed. If therefore there is an Union, notwithstanding that the Principals of the Scots Commons were never so much as supposed to give any Consent; there may be an Alteration of the Circumstances of that Union, without any such Condition. And they who insist so zealously upon this Argument, should first declare that there is and can be no Union, before they declare it impossible in Justice to mend any such Circumstance belonging to it. For if this be impossible, the Union is none at all; but if the Union be good and right, or to be maintained, then this Alteration is not impossible in Justice and Equity. I might add, that tho' some other Articles of the Union are declared Fundamental and Essential, yet nothing of this Sort is declared, in the Act of Parliament, concerning the Election of the Scots Peers.

'The great Point to us, I think, is the determining the Number of Peers in the House of Lords for the Future, and the limiting the Crown in the Prerogative of making Lords. How this can affect the Publick, of which we are the Guardians; or the several Branches of the Legislature, for all which we ought to have a Concern; or our House in particular in its Dignity or Power of doing Good: These are what properly lie before us.

'As a Member of the House of Commons, I am obliged not only to have a great Concern for that Part of the Legislature in particular, but the Whole and every Part of it; that no One Part encroaches upon Another to the Detriment of the Whole; that the Ballance be as strictly and as nicely preserv'd as possible; that no One of the States be brought into Contempt or Disability; and that our own House in particular, or those we represent, do not suffer in any Instance, by the Loss of any Good, or by the Accession of any Evil.

'With a View to these Points, I consider what will be the Effect, if this Bill passes; and what will be the Consequence, if this, or something like it, does not pass. As to the Crown it self, supposing the Bill to pass, there will indeed be a Power restrained in the Exercise of it. But what Power? Why truly the Power of making Lords upon all Occasions, in all Events, and for all Purposes imaginable: And this Power lodged in every King for ever. This Bill therefore restrains a Power almost too vast to be conceived; carried already to a great Excess; proceeding in every Reign to greater; and still to go on, as long as such a Government, with such a House of Lords as must be in time, can keep up any Dignity; I might have said, can preserve any Being. It restrains a Power which must of Necessity, in the natural Course of many Reigns, destroy all the Honour and Dignity of the States, which I am concerned and obliged to preserve. And besides this, as a Commoner, can it possibly be disagreeable to me, that a Power in the Crown should be restrained, which is at least as liable to be abused, as to be well used; perhaps more so, if we consider what Men, vested with Power and Passions and Imperfections, too generally shew themselves to be.

'If we come now to the House of Lords it self; this Bill, if it passes into a Law, will confine the Number of Peers in it to what it is at present, with the Additions before mentioned. What evil Consequences, or ill Effects, this can have in the House it self, in Comparison of the Contrary, will the better appear, if you will give me Leave to make a Supposition, which is very allowable in Argument, tho' I fear it would never be verified in Practice. Suppose therefore that the present, and all succeeding Kings, should take an absolute Resolution not to add to the Number of Peers, but to keep them exactly what they are, only by filling up the Failures in Families which may happen. Let me ask you, Is there a Man, is there a Member of the House of Commons, who, abstracted from private and restless Ambition and Impatience of waiting, would not rather commend such a Resolution, as Wisdom and Regard to the Publick; than condemn it as Weakness or Folly? And yet, with respect to any accidental evil Consequences, this would put the House of Lords exactly into the same State, in which the present Bill would leave it. The Increase or Decrease of the Influence of a Court in that House; the Management of a Ministry, and the Effects of that Management; nay, and the Formidableness of that noble Body it self; would, in all Respects, stand exactly where they will now stand if this Bill passes into a Law. And yet no one, I presume, would tax such a Resolution, either with Weakness or evil Design; because it is evident that, by this Means, one Way at least of forcing through the House of Lords what is agreeable to a Court, tho' never so bad in it self, or of hindering what is disagreeable, tho' never so good in it self, is entirely cut off. It is our Interest, and the Interest of the Publick, that the Consultations of that House should be free; which they could not be said to be, at a Time when the Crown poured in a Number of Lords to carry a Question in Danger. And by this Bill one Way, at least, to that Freedom is laid open and made secure for ever.

'With respect to Our Selves in this Affair: One Thing the Commons, as the Guardians of Liberty, have to wish for, is, that the Lords should be as little under the Influence of a Court, as such a Body can be supposed to be. Now I would ask, Is it a small Number, or a great Number, in that House, which can render it most liable to this great Evil? I am confident, it will be granted that it is the Smallness of their Numbers which does it. Nor have we ever heard of so many and so constant Compliances with Courts, as in those Times when they were not half the Number of what they are now. This Evil is prevented by the great Number which is still to be left; and without doubt will be constantly kept full: A Number a little too large, I hope, for the Purse of a Court, considering how great an Occasion there is for Money in other Places, supposing the Conduct of Men to be influenced by so bad and so base a Motive. Where therefore can we stop better, than where we should applaud our Kings for stopping themselves; when there is a Number (as nearly as such Things can be calculated) great enough to take off the Superfluity of Dignity and Power in that House; great enough to be a Bar against the most fatal Managements of bad Ministers, by the sole Influence of Posts and Profits; and yet not great enough to create any Danger to the Whole, in any other Respect, if it be stop'd at once effectually. I appeal to you, if any Commoner can ever wish or hope for the Good of the Publick, to see a Number of Lords exceeding Two Hundred and Thirty Five; nay, whether we ever wished to see such a Number as there is at present; or ever thought any otherwise of the Additions made in late Years, than as of something not very wise or politick. And if so, I hardly think we can justly dissent, upon any very plain Reason, from the Confinement of that Number now designed.

'Another Wish I have, as a Commoner, is, that there may not be a perpetual Incentive to the Ambition of our Members, to leave their Seats with us; as has been of late observed; which I have always thought to reflect a Dishonour and Ignominy upon our selves. Nor should there be wanting, at the same Time, as many Opportunities as can reasonably be thought sufficient, for the rewarding of the Merits of Commoners. This Bill, if it passes, will, as far as can be judged, very much contribute to these two Points. I do not mean, it will perfectly put a Stop to Applications and Solicitations; because there can be no such Thing hoped for, whilst there is such a Thing as a House of Lords. But as, on one Hand; many cannot be called up together; and, on the other, there will be some few Vacancies generally in Expectation; One cannot think of a better Medium than this, at once for the Encouragement of good Services in Commoners, and for the making them more content and easy, in applying themselves to the Business of the House, and less restless and impatient to be called out of it. And this you will easily agree in, that, after the Passing of this Bill, when a Commoner shall be called up for the future, he will be called up to an Honour much more valuable and distinguishing; than he is, in the present Condition of that House. I have often thought that the Dignity and Reputation of our House has sunk, in Proportion to the great Levies, if I may so say, made out of it; or to our Members voluntarily pressing and thronging into the other. And I think here is a Remedy as effectual as can be expected.

'But there is another Way of considering this Question, and that is, by supposing this Bill not to pass; and this Power in the Crown to continue infinite and unlimited, as it now is; and by weighing the Consequences upon this Supposition in future Ages; to which I hope we all mean to transmit our Constitution, unhurt in its essential Parts.

'Supposing this, I say; the Crown will indeed remain possessed of a Prerogative: But a Prerogative; the Exercise of which will come to reflect Shame upon itself, as well as upon those who will still partake of the Benefit of it. The Crown will have a Power, which will, I suppose, be from Time to Time exercised; nay, which must be supposed to be exercised to a great Extent, whenever any Ministry shall have any Designs to carry forward by it. The Power of the Crown will be untouched indeed; but the true Dignity and Glory of the Crown will be far from being untouched. It will be a Power, the Benefit of which at last no Man of Honour will either seek after, or accept; and so must be exercised, whenever there arises a real or supposed Necessity, upon Men of a different Character.

'The House of Lords, supposing the Exercise of this Royal Prerogative to remain unlimited by the rejecting this Bill; which too probably will be the last, as it is the first of the Sort: The House of Lords, I say, what will it become in Time? Who would not envy our Posterity the Sight of double or treble the present Number of Peers? Or, who would not applaud the Figure our Constitution must make, at such a Time; if it can be then called Our Constitution; when it is impossible to suppose that Men of Worth and Virtue will be prevailed upon to help to fill that House; and when yet it must be supposed that others will do it, to answer the particular Occasions of a Court, and their own Necessities, or Ends, at the same Time? We cannot have a meaner Idea of a House of Parliament, than this gives us; nor a more destructive one to the Nature of our Constitution; nor a more fatal one to the whole Community, And as we ought equally to guard against the formidable, and the ignominious Estate of that House; as well as the Dishonour and Injury of the whole Constitution; I think we cannot wish to see the Number of Peers to go on and increase, as they must do.

'But if you say, the Nature of Things will stop this Evil without a Law for this Purpose: I wish it were so, in Probability; because then I am sure this Bill would be proved reasonable by this very Argument. For if it be reasonable that this Increase of Numbers should stop; you must either find out that Point at which such an Evil will stop itself, which is beyond the Wit of Man to do; or you must concur to stop it the first Opportunity you have, at such a Number as might be thought tolerably reasonable, as far as such a Matter can be calculated. And again, if it be reasonable that this Increase should stop somewhere; certainly there can be no Argument against stopping it now, unless it be this, that the Number of Peers proposed is too little; nay, that it is remarkably very much too little; for there is no standing upon Niceties in such a Case. But no One, I believe, will say that the Numbers of Peers proposed is too little. Hitherto the Complaints have been on the contrary Part; and no One could say this, who must not, by the same Breath, condemn our Princes, should they all resolve never to augment the Number. But indeed it is so far from being likely that this Increase will ever stop of itself, in the Course and Nature of Things; that the Contrary must be certain, as long as it is certain that there will be too often, in all Ages and all Reigns, Designs to be carried on which will call for a sudden Increase of this Number; and always Men in the World capable of accepting a Call, for the Benefit of such Designs. And this I think a very deplorable Consideration, supposing this Bill not to pass.

'As to our House, and its Members; and the Interest of the Commons as such; besides that it is our strict Interest and Duty to preserve the whole, by the due Balance of its several Parts; I shall only say, upon Supposition of the Number of Lords continual Increase upon the rejecting this Bill, that neither our Freedom in our Elections or our Votes, nor our Honour in being at any Time called up to the House of Peers, can be said to be so great and so valuable, as it will otherwise be. In the Affair of our Elections before we sit, and our Proceedings whilst we sit, the increasing Number of Peers, which must be vast in Time, will have a great Effect, and not a very good one; perhaps indeed in a smaller Proportion in our Days, but in a more fatal Manner in Process of Time; in those future Times, to which we ought to extend our Concern, if we have any true Regard for our Country. It will be a small Comfort to the Commoners of Great Britain, even if they have a Mind to keep up too remarkable a Distinction between themselves and the Peers, to think that the Number of Peers increasing (as it must do without this Bill) does itself make the Peers contemptible and mean in their own House and in some other Respects; whilst this very Number, so perpetually increasing, must itself, as I apprehend, give them a much greater Power and Influence without their own Doors, and within ours, than they could otherwise have. For, even supposing them, in Time, to be many of them Persons but of indifferent Fortunes in the World, or the like; yet by their great Numbers, being dispersed every where in every Corner of the Land, and having numerous Descendents, Relations, Acquaintances and Dependents, this very immense Number must be a Weight, and a very great one. Their Influence in Elections of the Commoners must be vast; and their Influence afterwards, in the House of Commons, must be proportionable, after the Election; in carrying Votes, in forwarding or hindring any Law; and the like.

'There is another Evil for which the Commons of Great Britain have always used to wish to see some Remedy; and that is, the skreening of evil Ministers and evil Counsellors from the Censures and Impeachments of our House. What more natural Way for a Court to do this, especially since a late Experiment, than to croud into the House of Lords a Number of Peers upon such a great Occasion? Supposing this Bill not to pass, this Evil remains without a Remedy: And it is an Evil which ought to affect every Member of the House of Commons, in a very peculiar Manner.

'It has been alledged that upon fixing thus the Number of Peers, they will think themselves the more powerful; and many of them living in a very Expensive Manner, and perhaps the more so after this, that the Fate of our Laws may come to depend upon such as have made themselves poor, and consequently Slaves to a Court. This is a Speculation, I confess, which may possibly prove true in Fact, if you can suppose any Person to resolve to make himself poor merely for the Pleasure of being a Slave; or that there will be one Peer more or less expensive on this sole Account. But supposing this to be possible and probable both; I still say, it is better to run the Risque of this which is uncertain, and to have the Fate of your Laws depend upon some who shall voluntarily make themselves indigent; than to have the Fate of your Laws, or of any publick Designs, depend upon a Number of Persons at any Time to be called up, as a King or a Ministry shall think fit: Which is not the possible uncertain Consequence of not passing this Law, but the certain and unavoidable one in Times to come. And to prevent an uncertain Evil, I can never persuade myself to run into a certain one.

'It may be said perhaps, that our Liberties have hitherto subsisted under the Exercise of this unlimited Power of the Crown; and therefore may still go on, and continue in a very good Estate, without any Limitation to it. But this Way of arguing is very unhappy, because it is equally good against making any new Laws; and especially against preventing any probable Dangers to the Publick; which is the great Business of a Parliament to do; and of much greater Importance, than to wait 'till they become perhaps too big to be remedied. We have not been ruined, therefore we need not take Care to prevent Ruin, is but a very weak Way of Reasoning; and worse than weak, where the Whole is concerned. The Attempt has once, in a very remarkable Manner, been made; and there were few, I believe, who did not think it a fatal Precedent, supposing it to have been made even for a good Cause and a praise-worthy End. What has been done may be done; what has been done in a great Degree may be done in a greater still. What might have ruined us once, may ruin us another Time. To prevent that Danger which might have come heretofore, and may come hereafter, in one certain Method at least, is one End which will be answered by this Bill.

'But it may be said, that all the Evils arising from the Crown's making a great Number of Lords at one Time, to carry any one great Point, may be prevented in another Way, either by enacting, That Lords shall not vote in the House till a Year or two after they are created; or by confining the Crown to a very small Number every Year. It must be owned, that this might possibly remedy those Evils particularly; but it is not at all certain that this would do it effectually, supposing Courts to lay their own Designs long before-hand, and to have any Skill, as some have had, in the Choice of proper Persons. We Commons should remember, I think particularly, that there was a Time when the Power of the Crown was unlimited as to our own House; and could give to new Boroughs the Privilege of sending Members. And was it not a great Evil, that Courts could choose such Boroughs for this Purpose, as they knew wou'd carry on their Designs, and elect such as they should nominate? We reckon it a Happiness that this Evil, which threaten'd the Freedom of our own House, is now cured by the Confinement of our Numbers. And shall we envy the other House the same Freedom, equally good for the Publick, which cannot be procured so effectually, as by the same Confinement upon which we reckon our own to subsist; especially, considering that the Method proposed instead of this, must by Degrees make an Increase of Lords vastly disproportionate to the Commons; and, by calling up rich Commoners, must make that House, of which we are so jealous peculiarly on the Account of Property, I will not say, to represent Property, but what is more, to possess almost all the Property in the Nation.

'Let us be as jealous of Ministers as we ought; that is, as jealous as they give us Occasion to be. But let not that Jealousy drive us out of the Temper, with which every Thing proposed to us demands to be considered; nor divert us from balancing the Good and Evil on both Sides; and determining our selves by that Balance. I leave my self open to new Light; but, 'till that comes, I will be so free as to add, 'Let it not be said by our Posterity (if it be, I fear it will be said with no very kind Reflections upon us their Fore-fathers) that there was a Time in Great Britain, when there was a King upon the Throne who had the Goodness so uncommon, as to be ready to recede from his Prerogative, in order to put our Constitution upon a Foot of greater Certainty and greater Freedom; and that there was a House of Commons not disposed to make Use of a Conjuncture, which the Nation has little Reason to hope ever to see again as long it continues in Being.'