London Radicalism 1830-1843 A Selection of the Papers of Francis Place. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 1970.
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It is my intention to give an account of two societies. The first of which was called the Parliamentary Candidates Society. The second the National Political Union. The existence of these societies was brief but not unimportant and their proceedings inasmuch as they had any effect in helping to produce the great and highly important changes which were made in the years 1831 and 1832 are a portion of the history of the times, which if not now recorded in a somewhat detailed form may be lost, and future historians like their predecessors may have to describe events many of the causes of which were irretrievably lost. Events which from the deficiency of facts appear to have been produced by inadequate causes, conjecture and hypothesis to have been substituted, and applied to fill up the space left vacant by the want of those facts. It is, however, probable that so many of the causes as well those which tended immediately as those which tended more remotely to the recent changes have been noticed by persons who took part in producing these changes, as well officially and parliamentarily as otherwise, and will in time either be laid before the public or so disposed of, that access may be had to them and our late revolution be much more completely elucidated than any which has preceded it. To assist as much as I can in this matter is the principal reason why this account has been extended to its present length. It needs no apology and none is made for it.
It is not my intention to write a history of the proceedings during the progress of the Reform Bills day by day either in or out of Parliament, further than they are immediately connected with the National Political Union and the general feelings and conduct of the houses of parliament and the people at their public meetings. All beyond these matters will be a mere sketch. The proceedings in parliament day by day are in print, and they who wish for more particular information must consult the Mirror of Parliament—Hansard Debates and the voluminous papers printed by order of the two houses of parliament. I intend however to notice such occurrences in parliament as may seem necessary to make a connected account, and to give such information from newspapers and the minute books of the National Political Union as may make the circumstances be clearly understood.
Mr (T. Erskine) Perry wished me to meet some of his friends for the purpose of forming a society—to point out proper persons as candidates at the next election. I had not as yet determined to join any society, and I knew that his friends were like himself, young men of some fortune, many of whom were desirous to become members of parliament themselves. We talked the matter over [on 6 March], I told him of the applications which at the last election had been made to me to name proper persons as candidates, of similar applications to Mr Warburton, and of the much larger number which had been made to Mr Hume without our being able to name persons. I encouraged him to proceed, on two grounds, to enable electors to obtain proper candidates, and candidates to find electors. I pointed out to him the difficulties he would have to encounter, and the little satisfaction he would derive from his exertions, but I said he could not fail to do much real service to the people by any sensible display, as it would draw the attention of a vast number of them to the subject and tend to induce them to think more correctly on the matter in all its bearings; and that he ought in the first instance to be satisfied with effecting this much. That the next election could be at no great distance, as the present parliament would either be dissolved when the reform bill was passed, or in consequence of its refusing to pass it, and it was therefore very desirable that such a society as Mr Perry proposed should be commenced. That there were however several objections which he would do well to consider and fully to determine before he attempted its establishment
On tuesday the 9th Mr Perry came again and said his friends had resolved to commence such a society as he had mentioned. I advised him to lose no time in establishing it—to have nothing ambiguous about it, to go the whole length even if it should frighten some of his friends away, that it was better to be defeated at once and to let the matter drop, than to go on tamely and after all be obliged to break up with discredit. A meeting for the purpose was he said to be held at his chambers in the Albany on the next day in the evening, and he urged me to draw up an address to the public for him to lay before the meeting. I had mentioned his scheme to every man I saw, and as all commended it, I undertook to draw up the address as he requested—for the meeting to be held the next evening. . . .
At the close of the last parliament several persons were requested to name gentlemen who entertained liberal opinions, were in other respects qualified and were willing to become candidates for seats in the house of commons. So great however was the difficulty that even Mr Hume the most likely of all men could not name gentlemen who were willing to become candidates for as many places as were indicated.
In several instances the committees who conducted the Westminster Elections since 1806 have been applied to, to designate properly qualified persons to become candidates but in no one instance were they able to comply with the wishes of the applicants.
Men well qualified for the office and worthy of public confidence have shrunk from the expence [sic], the corrupt practices and the self degradation which has all along attended popular elections, in almost every instance under the rotten borough and county nomination system. This system it is hoped and believed will by the praiseworthy measure of reform introduced by ministers be to a considerable extent destroyed, and the election of members to serve in parliament be much more at the command of the electors than it has hitherto been.
But this of itself will be of little real benefit to the people, and especially in places where for the first time they will have to exercise the right of suffrage; if unaided by previous information, they should be left exposed to the practice of adventurors [sic], who may be generally described as consisting of three classes.
The first consists, almost wholly of men who do not think any of the qualifications requisite for legislation are at all requisite, and they, of course, with some few exception possess none of the necessary qualifications.
The general conduct of these men may be described in a few words. They are seldom present in the house when any business of moment is before it. They never do any thing in the way of business themselves, unless it be some trifling matter which may enable them to make a display before particular persons, or procure for themselves some particular personal advantage. They are altogether absent during the greater part of the session, and when present serve only to aid the party to which they belong, or happen to be attached, to swell the majority, or to make the minority respectable in number.
If it were possible, in so grave a matter as legislation, in a country like this, that any man could be useless, this might be called the useless class, but no one can be useless, even the silliest and the meanest of all the members must be either useful or mischievous by his acts of commission or omission.
It may be safely affirmed of this class, that the vanity which prompts the man to seek the office will seldom prevent him being open to corruption in almost every shape, and experience proves that all such men with some very rare exceptions are corrupt.
Every man in the second class must necessarily be mischievous. Every such man goes to Parliament with his mind made up to serve himself and his family, at the expence of the people and should be most carefully shunned by the electors.
Of the third class little need be said. No man is so ignorant as to suppose that men of this class ever had or ever will have any object but their own personal interests. No man can believe they will ever be other than what they have been, enemies of the people, ready and willing to sacrifice their welfare and happiness in any and every way; no matter how atrocious the proceeding; at the suggestion or command of those who will pay them best, or place them in situations in which they may pay themselves from the plunder of the people.
These three classes mark the strong distinctions of caste, of the adventurers. Many however partake of the two first, preponderating towards the second, and in some instances towards the third class. The same may be said respecting the second and third classes, preponderating in the same way but to a greater extent towards the third class. A correct analysis of any former house of commons would show many instances of famalies [sic] of the second class either placing their poorer members in the third class, or encouraging them to place themselves in it.
The whole of the persons composing these three classes, and they are a large number, may be considered as adventurers, in the broadest sense, and against every one of them the electors should most carefully guard themselves. This they cannot however do with any effect unless men properly qualified and in sufficient number be made known to them, by their connections, pursuits and opinions on public matters, being sufficiently and also as early as possible supplied to them.
No individual can accomplish this purpose, but a number of individuals associated can do all that is desirable with the greatest ease; whence it follows that a society for this purpose ought to be formed, and a number of gentlemen having considered the matter in all its bearings, have formed themselves into such a society, and to enable them to carry their purposes into execution have appointed the following committee. (fn. 1)
On the morning of thursday the 10th I took the address to Mr Perry. The next morning I received a note from Mr Perry saying that 'the sub-committee met last night, that he had read the address to them, as mine, that it was exceedingly applauded and the ideas suggested in it appeared to take exceedingly'. He said 'it was agreed that the names of some 30 or 40 as big wigs as possible should be obtained, and then that a meeting should be called and a definite plan be settled.' I understood the meaning of this as well as any one who had been present did, each saw what sort of thing an honest plain address must be, and each saw too, that he was much too genteel a person, to like that his name should appear to such an address— each applauded it because he felt the force of the facts it contained, because he could not dispute the reasoning, and each therefore determined not to take a decided part in the matter. I saw at once that the proposal to obtain the names of some 30 or 40 eminent and conspicuous men was an adjournment sine die as not one of those who composed the 'sub-committee' would have made any effort to procure the consent of any one such person, and the resolution that it would be advisable to procure such names was virtually a dissolution of the sub-committee, as they called themselves. If they had spoken out truly they would have said, we see that we have commenced a proceeding which when examined appears to involve circumstances we did not contemplate, and requires, to make it efficient, proceedings which we do not like, and we must therefore proceed no further, if they had done thus they would have spoken the language of honest men, but this of all things is ever avoided by gentility; so they concluded that it was necessary to propose what was impracticable as an excuse for doing nothing. They were not at all aware, that most of them were to be acted upon by others and even by what is called their own feelings—and consequently to follow others, if others of equal consequence with themselves should undertake to manage such a society as they had timorously and genteely abandoned.
I therefore wrote to Mr Perry, objected to the resolution to obtain the names of from '30 to 40 big wigs'—said it was requisite to proceed with dispatch and that if his friends were slow in their motions others would take the matter up. To this Mr Perry replied as I anticipated he would, 'that he could not get the sub-committee to meet, that he could not use their names without their consent, and that the only way to get out of the difficulty will be for you to set on foot something of the same kind as after all it is from numbers and intelligence and not from names that any good will spring.'
I had seen so very many persons who said they would belong to such a society if I would undertake a share of the management that I was convinced a society might be established, which could not fail to be useful to some extent, however few were the members and however short its duration, and I therefore resolved to go on with it.
On friday the 11th I wrote a very long letter to Mr Hume, in which I told him seriatim what had been done, I inclosed to him a copy of the address I had written and I requested him to allow me to name him as chairman of the society. I gave him till sunday morning to decide. On the sunday morning Mr Gouger who had consented to become honorary secretary went to Mr Hume's, saw him, and brought back to me the copy of the address, and his unqualified consent to become chairman of the society. In the note which Mr Gouger brought from Mr Hume to me—he says—'I entirely approve of the plan of such an association, and shall take any part which may be thought proper, always having reference to my time of which I can spare but little. I doubt the propriety of going so largely into the objects as you do in the address. I think it may be sufficient without dwelling on the unfitness of many in the house, to state the qualities the new members should have and the measures you intend to take to propose proper candidates. You may therefore calculate on my feeble aid in the cause.'
Thus was the 'Parliamentary Candidates Society' instituted. As usual most of the persons who became members of it were timid, and unresolved. Before the meeting could be held I was pestered with the fears, and the objections these fears excited, in the shabby genteel persons, on whom it depended whether or not any such society should be formed, and this included the matter of the address. I was compelled to let Mr Perry and some of his friends emasculate the address, as it may by comparison be seen it was emasculated. I debated with myself the whole subject and had almost determined to have nothing to do with the proceedings, but at length resolved to enter into them, seeing that unless I took a very decided part no meeting would be had and no society formed. I should have abandoned the matter altogether, had I not been satisfied that when a general committee was formed, and a sub-committee was by that general committee appointed, much might be done that would be found useful, and that even the comparatively little, which under the most adverse circumstances which could happen, would be of some and might perchance be of much consequence. I knew that even in such a collection of half whigs half reformers there would be all sorts of impediments, changes, abandonments and resignations, but that if only three could be found in the sub-committee who would hold together something, much perhaps, could be done and I therefore resolved to go on as long as a chance of producing even a slight effect remained.
Address. (fn. 2)
The measures of Reform brought forward by His Majesty's Ministers, which have been enthusiastically welcomed by the whole Kingdom, will require the exertions of the People themselves to obtain the grand object of a legislative body identified with the popular interest.
Hitherto, the men best fitted, by their intellectual and moral worth, to be representatives of the people, have usually shrunk from a popular election. The expence [sic], corruption, and degradation attending on that hitherto debasing proceeding, have deterred the honest-minded, and but too often left the field open to those who have had much wealth to squander, and few scruples to overcome.
It is hoped that this vicious system will no longer prevail; that places will be thrown open in which the honest candidate will have to stoop to no immoral acts, to practise no corruption, to truckle to no commands; and, that the people will be able to choose those who, by talent, industry, and probity, are fit to be popular representatives.
This power, however, will be of little avail, if it be not judiciously exercised. Unless the electors be made acquainted with the character of the candidates who propose themselves—unless the men most worthy be brought to their notice—improper or inadequate selections will again be made; the same neglect of duty, the same corrupt practices, the same extravagant expenditure, which have hitherto been our degradation and our curse, will continue.
Experience has taught us, that, separately, individuals cannot perform this task. Applications for information have often been made by various bodies of electors, desirous of choosing honest and enlightened representatives. But no one being prepared to answer their inquiries, the praiseworthy wishes of the electors have been frustrated. The idle, vain, and profligate, have too often been chosen in the place of the industrious, upright, and enlightened. The unprincipled political adventurer, swayed only by personal interests, has usurped the post of the honest, single-minded patriot; and a people harassed, plundered, and oppressed, have but too well attested the vicious operation of a badly-selected legislature.
What individuals cannot perform may be easily effected by an association; and for the purpose of obtaining the information required, and
properly and adequately publishing it to the world, the present Association
has been formed, under the name of the
and the persons above named have been appointed a Committee to carry the intentions of the Society into effect.
The beneficial purpose here in view would be greatly aided by numerous local societies. But such separate yet connected bodies cannot be formed, since the 57th Geo.III. c.19. s.25. forbids all communication between them. A Society has therefore been formed extending all over the country, of which any person may become a member on entering his name, address, and designation, in one of the Society's books, or by forwarding the same to the Secretary by letter; and on the payment of a subscription of not less than Five Shillings to the funds of the Society for the current year. Thus the one body may extend to the most distant parts of the country, and a correspondence carried on, to whatever extent may be desired, without any violation of the law.
Books have been opened at the Houses of Messrs. Ransom and Co. Pall Mall East; Messrs. Martin, Call, and Co. Old Bond Street; Messrs. Grote, Prescott, & Co. Threadneedle Street; Mr. Alderman Scales, Aldgate; Mr. Agassiz, 223 Piccadilly; Mr. Charles Fox Smith, Blackman Street, Borough; Mr. De Vear, 44 Lisle Street, Leicester Square; and at the Office of the Westminster Review, Wellington Street, Strand.
I entreat you to withdraw my name from the list of the committee as I find it will be to me and other members most injurious. We were attacked yesterday and the day before in the house, and I find every opinion against my having anything to do with it publicly. I will explain more when we meet.
The Society did not, however, make the progress anticipated. The principal obstacles which impeded its immediate success, were occasioned by the dislike entertained, with very few exceptions, by the members of the House of Commons, to having their public conduct fairly presented to public view. From this wholesome exposure, which real representatives of the people who did their duty would court, which their constituents would expect and perhaps demand, honourable gentlemen shrunk as from contagion. The enemies of reform first took the alarm; their fears were soon spread amongst the friends of reform, too many of whom joined with eager haste in reprobating what their fears represented to them, as an unwarrantable interference with the conduct of public men; and, instead of supporting the Society as they ought to have done, and as but for the absurd deference they paid to the assertions of the enemy they would have done, they became its most active opponents. The people had so long been considered and used as mere tools, to make members of parliament, and members had so long possessed the power of acting as masters over the people, that what at some former period would have been admired and applauded, as proof of the honesty and independence of Englishmen, was now considered as little better than an arrogant revolt of slaves against the domination of their absolute governors.
The apprehensions entertained by members of the House of Commons, were even communicated to some members of the Committee of the Society; who therefore withdrew their names; but the Committee, perfectly satisfied that the duty they had undertaken was too important to be neglected, resolved to perform it to the utmost extent of all the means they possessed, or might possess; and this they have done. Although all the good has not been effected which the state of the public mind would have permitted, great and permanent advantages have been obtained. Opposition, and defection of friends, though they at first lessened, could not eventually prevent the beneficial influence of the Society's labours.
Electors generally have obtained the respect and admiration of the people at large. Time was, however, wanted to enable them, as well as the Society, to accomplish all, which otherwise might have been accomplished. The personal exertions so many electors have made—the sacrifices to which they have cheerfully submitted—the bribes openly offered, or disguised under so many names, they have spurned—the power to which in so many places they have been accustomed to bow, but which they have now defied —and the many corrupt influences they have contemned—are proofs sufficient of that honour and honesty which the true friends of the people have all along believed and asserted they possessed, but which their enemies, who wished to continue to be their masters, as constantly denied. These enemies are now compelled to yield them an unwilling but perfect respect, and have thus justified the admiration of their friends.
In many places in which the electors have really possessed the power, they have rejected the notorious enemies of reform, and have returned men on whom they can safely rely to promote that all-important measure.
In other places, the enemies of reform shrunk appalled at the firm countenance and determined conduct of the electors; they saw that the time of delusion and of arbitrary power was passing away, and they submitted to the growing influence of an intellectual people they could no longer hope to mislead.
This is a triumph at which the friends of mankind have reason to rejoice. The triumph has not been obtained without much labour, and with great difficulty. The Parliamentary Candidate Society has shared in both; and they hope it will be acknowledged they are entitled to some share of the honour.
At the request of many bodies of electors, the Committee have furnished statements, and published accounts, of the speeches and votes of their former representatives since the general election in 1826, and in some instances for a much longer period; and they have reason to conclude, that both in preventing the enemies of reform from again soliciting the suffrages of electors, and in inducing electors to refuse them where they have ventured to solicit their suffrages, the Society has assisted in promoting the public good.
Time in this, as in most cases where the purpose has been a good one, has done much for the Society. Its objects are now better understood, its conduct is more duly appreciated, its utility more generally admitted, apprehension has subsided, and even calumny has at least for the present ceased. Much has been accomplished—much remains to be accomplished; and encouraged by their past success, the Committee have determined to continue their efforts. They confidently rely on the honest independent men who really and sincerely advocate Reform, for the assistance which will be necessary to enable them to render service to the public, to an extent which can only be correctly appreciated by those who have profoundly meditated on the modes by which an intelligent people may by honest efforts be influenced for their advantage.
The Society possesses but one means of influence, namely, collecting, and plainly and honestly stating facts, by which all may be enabled to judge of the fitness of candidates, and thus be warned against entrusting their property, their lives, and their liberty, to persons who are unworthy of such highly important powers. This influence will, by the measures adopted by the Society, be of much greater importance previously to the next general election, than it has hitherto been, or could possibly have been in any former period; and this they trust will not only be acknowledged, but acted upon, so as to enable them adequately to accomplish all the purposes they have contemplated.
In continuing their labours, they will carefully observe, and daily note, the conduct of all the members of the newly-elected parliament, during the great struggle about to take place for the present salvation and future permanent advantage of the people, who compose this noble commonwealth; and when the time shall arrive, that our good and gracious and patriotic King shall again, by a dissolution of the parliament, 'appeal to the sense of his people,' they will, without prejudice or partiality, publish an accurate account of the attendance, the absence, the speeches and votes of the members of the House of Commons; and when any discussion or decision of any national importance takes place, of the number of members present at such discussion and division.
The misconduct of a representative may be of two general descriptions. 1. He may speak or vote contrary to the public welfare; or, 2 He may abstain from either speaking or voting on the side of the people. The latter is the least ostensible, but the most insidious mischief. The absence of a member is as much a dereliction from his duty, as it would be were he to oppose himself directly and actively to measures intended for the public benefit.
The Society will therefore notice such conduct. The public will then know, not only when a member did mischief in a direct way, but when, by neglecting his duty, he did his utmost to permit others to do so.
The struggle is not yet over—the evil of misgovernment is not eradicated. Nothing short of the most strenuous exertions on the part of the people, can consummate the great work so gloriously commenced. In aiding the people to the best of its ability, and to the fullest extent of the means which may be furnished them, the Society will not be found wanting.