HC Deb 08 July 1831 vol 4 cc954-66
Mr. Hunt

presented a Petition from the Working Classes of Manchester, in favour of Universal Suffrage, Annual Parliaments, and Vote by Ballot. The petition, the hon. Member said, was signed by 19,400 individuals belonging to the working classes. He had deferred the presentation of it until he saw the hon. member for Lancashire (Mr. Heywood) in his place, as he should feel it his duty to call upon that hon. Member to support the prayer of this petition. When that hon. Member entered Manchester in triumph after his election, some of the flags carried before him on that occasion, had these mottoes on them, "No Corn Laws"—" Annual Parliaments"— "Universal Suffrage"— "Vote by Ballot." The hon. Member was therefore in some degree bound to support the prayer of a petition which prayed for these things. He could not avoid remarking upon the little attention which was paid either by the supporters or the opponents of the Reform Bill to the just claims of the working classes. He had heard during the late three nights' Debate many eloquent speeches on that side of the House in support of the aristocracy; he had heard many learned and powerful arguments from the other side of the House in favour of the Bill and of the ten-pounders, but he had not heard a word from either side of the House in favour of the working classes— the 7,000,000 of male adults who were to be excluded from the Representation by this Bill. He must put the House in possession of parts of the contents of the petition. The petitioners expressed their loyalty to the King and attachment to the institutions of the country; they heard with pleasure of the extension of the suffrage to the 10l. voters, but expressed their regret that the class to which they belong were excluded. He complained, that whenever he had a petition to present in favour of the working classes, he was interrupted by noise and talking in the House. The petitioners further represented that the exclusion of the working classes from the elective franchise would only tend to excite future agitation. He had heard the ective franchise called a trust, but he must contend that the suffrage belonged to the electors as a matter of right; that it was improperly described when spoken of as a trust; that from the reign of Edward 1st to that of Henry 6th, a period of 150 years, every freeman was entitled to a vote by Magna Charta; in the reign of Henry the 6th an Act passed which stated, that as many persons of small property attended election and professed to have an equal right to vote with those who possessed large property, from which circumstance broils and disturbances were likely to ensue, in future persons possessing freehold property to the amount of 40s. should be allowed to vote. This was the first disfranchising Act, and from that day down to the present, all the statutes that had been placed on the books had had for their object to abridge the liberties of the people. In the time of Edward the 1st, an Act. of Parliament was passed to declare Parliament annual, and he was therefore astonished to hear great lawyers and Statesmen call those who petitioned for Universal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments, wild and visionary persons. He begged to state, that neither this petition, nor any petition of the kind, had been got. up at his instigation. He had allowed the working classes, the 7,000,000 for whom the Bill would do nothing, to judge of its merits, and he was eady to support their petitions when transmitted to him. He had been told by the hon. member for Kerry that when the Ministerial Bill should be carried, he would stand alone out of doors as the advocate of Universal Suffrage, Annual Parliaments, and Vote by Ballot; but the hon. Gentleman was mistaken, the working classes for whom the Bill did nothing would stand by him, while his opponents would only have the 500,000 ten-pounders to support them.

Mr. Heywood

hoped, that as a new Member he should experience the kind indulgence of the House on this, to him, painful occasion, for it was painful, most painful, to have, on the first time he had ever addressed the House, to answer an attack like that made by the hon. Member. With regard to what had been stated as to the banners and mottoes that preceded his triumphal entry into Manchester, he begged to say, that he was completely ignorant of them. He was sorry to see petitions of this description coming from the working classes of Manchester. He had had some intercourse with the working classes there; he had their real benefit at heart, and he told the delegates who had brought up this petition when they waited on him, what he honestly and sincerely believed would be the case—that what they asked for (namely, Annual Parliaments and Universal Suffrage) would, if obtained, effect the destruction and starvation of the working classes themselves. When the Reform Bill was disposed of, he should go back to Lancashire, and, aware that he possessed some influence with the working classes there, he should exercise it to induce them to abandon such a course of proceeding as this—a course that was so mischievously destructive of their best interests.

Mr. Hume

said, that the delegates who had conveyed this petition to town, had waited on him also, and that he told them that they only brought injury on the cause of Reform and good government by presenting such petitions now. The measure of Reform, when carried, would benefit every individual in the country, not even excepting the 7,000,000 of whom the hon. member for Preston had spoken, He was sorry to see petitions presented calling upon the House to do more than it would be prudent to attempt at the present moment, and such petitions were calculated to do much mischief. He would moreover maintain, that this petition did not speak the sense of the working classes. He had received a communication from Stockport, in which it was stated, that only 2s. 6d. could be raised there to defray the expense of sending the Delegates to town, and when he mentioned that fact to the Delegates, they could not deny it. He deprecated the idea expressed so often by the hon. Member, that the House was indifferent to the claims of the labouring classes.

Mr. Warre

protested against the language used by the hon. member for Preston on this and former occasions, when the hon. Member said, that Members or candidates were bound to support, and were rendered responsible and answerable for, the inscriptions on flags or banners carried during the elections. It was too hard to impute to the hon. Member any blame for the inscriptions. Every person must know, who had any experience of contested elections, that the zeal of friends, or the conduct of pretended friends, might, according to this doctrine, involve a candidate to such an extent as to render his presence in that House worse than useless. It was absurd to pledge a Member to whatever took place at a general election. He gave the hon. Member all the benefit of the argument he had founded on the two statutes of Edward 1st, and Henry the 6th, but he declared the law ever since had a tendency to increase the extent of the right of Suffrage, comparing the qualification of a 40s. freeholder at that time to what it was now. The hon. Member forgot the difference between the value of money in those days and the present. The practical effects of these laws had been, to enfranchise the people, not to disfranchise them, and he regretted that the hon. Member persisted in a course of assumption which was as little founded on history or fact as it was calculated to promote the cause of Reform, to which the whole conduct of the hon. Member was hostile.

Mr. O'Connell

wished to say a few words respecting the petition, as he had some previous knowledge of it. The hon. member for Preston said that seven millions of the population of England would be disfranchised by the Bill. Now it ought to be borne in mind that, according to the last return laid before the House, that of 1821, the whole population of England was only twelve millions, and the one-half of that consisted of females; and he should, therefore, be glad to know by what rule of arithmetic the hon. Member, after taking away six from twelve, could make a remainder of seven. A deputation had waited on him with the petition, and he declined to present it. During the interview which they had with him, some of the party asked his serious opinion whether Mr. Hunt had been bribed by the Tories. His answer was, that he was convinced he was not, for nobody would ever think of bribing him. He had also told those persons, that he was sure they would care nothing about Universal Suffrage when the Bill came into operation. He (Mr. O'Connell) had formerly been in favour of Universal Suffrage, because he thought that good and cheap Government could not be obtained without it. He was, however, no longer of that opinion. The rotten boroughs would be destroyed by this measure, there would be no longer the nominees of Peers or other persons in the House, but each Member would be returned by a large constituency. He repeated, therefore, that this Bill afford-ed an ample security for good government. He had stated as much to the delegates, and warned them, as he would then warn hon. Members, not to delay, by finding needless faults, the progress of a measure which would confer incalculable benefit on the country.

Sir Charles Forbes

thought the hon. member for Preston deserved praise for his sincerity and candour. He had told the truth manfully, and as the truth must be obnoxious to the ears of Gentlemen opposite, he was not surprised at the manner in which the hon. Member had been treated. He had no doubt that the petition spoke the sentiments of the large body of the labouring classes: he was convinced they were not satisfied, and would not be, unless much larger concessions were made. Their discontent had been entirely occasioned by the conduct of Ministers in introducing their Reform Bill. Already, petitions had been presented from Newcastle, complaining that this measure would disfranchise the children of the petitioners. He had watched the conduct of the people during the last four months, and endeavoured to ascertain their feelings, and he was convinced they would not cease to petition the House until Universal Suffrage was conceded. He could not understand upon what grounds the present Bill had been trained. On what principle was it, that those who paid 3s. 10d. per week I for their houses were to have votes, while to those who paid 3s. 6d. it was refused? How was it that the man who paid 10l. per annum should enjoy the elective franchise, while he who only paid 9l. 19s. 11d, had not the right? The Bill would not bear the test of examination, and was an attempt to legislate upon absurd and extravagant principles. He agreed with the hon. member for Preston, that a more unsatisfactory and incomprehensible measure had never been submitted to the House. If it was sanctioned, they would have to concede, step by step, all that the most extravagant Reformers demanded; indeed, he knew that the hon. member for Middlesex had advised the people of Scotland to be quiet for the present, for the success of the Bill would make it easy to obtain, after it was passed, all that they had hitherto demanded. He was convinced that this Bill would do much evil; and, among other things, would operate as an inducement to people not to pay their rents. Some hon. Members had objected to the right of ladies voting; he would ask them, on what grounds they opposed this proposition? Ladies had the right of voting for Directors to the East-India Company, and if the right of voting was grounded on the possession of property, there ought to be no distinction of sex. Another reason for wishing the ladies had this privilege was, that he thought the greater part of them had very proper notions about this Reform Bill, and properly opposed it, because it was incomprehensible to them, as well as to their fathers and brothers. Although many Members had called for explanations of different clauses, yet none which could be understood had been given. He was satisfied the most disastrous results would accrue to the country from this Bill being carried. There was no probability of his being a Member of a Reformed House of Commons, nor should he desire it; for he had no inclination to mix with the company which would probably assemble in that House, should the Bill become a law.

Lord Stanley

protested against the doctrine, that his Colleague was to be considered pledged to certain opinions because persons who supported him at his election, entertained them, and displayed them on flags. He also protested against the tone and manner adopted by the hon. member for Preston, in lecturing other Members in unbecoming language. The hon. Member had appealed to him (Lord Stanley) for the correctness of a statement he had made, but he could not confirm its accuracy. The hon. Member said, that he never requested petitions to be got up against this Bill; and that, on the contrary, he had cautiously abstained from interfering. A paper, however, had been put into his hands containing the report of the delegates sent up from Manchester to get this petition presented, which stated, that the hon. Member told them, it would be in vain for the people to expect any good from the Reform Bill, or that the iniquitous Corn-laws would be abolished. The people of Manchester were bound, the hon. Member was reported to have said, to support his motion for the total abolition of these laws—and he recommended a petition should be got up, and as many signatures as possible attached to it; that it should be worded in the strongest language, and sent to him before the 15th of the present month, upon which day he intended to bring the subject before the House. The hon. Gentleman complained that other hon. Members excited the people to petition in favour of the Reform Bill; he had, at the same time, declared, that he had never asked, or requested, any person to petition this House on a subject any way connected with that question, which, according to this statement, was not correct. With respect to the flags borne before his hon. Colleague, they were carried probably by persons who had no connexion whatever with his hon. Colleague, and it was monstrous to make him responsible for the inscriptions on them.

Mr. Trevor

wished to correct an error of the hon. and learned member for Kerry. That hon. and learned Gentleman had stated, that this Bill would not disfranchise any voters; but a large number of non-resident freemen who, in many places, formed the majority of the voters, would be disfranchised. In Durham, for instance, all the non-resident freemen would be deprived of the right of voting, and the greater part of them belonged to the labouring classes.

Mr. O'Connell

was sure the hon. Member had made a mistake, when he spoke of labouring classes, he meant those who were hired once in seven years.

Mr. George Robinson

was surprised, that the hon. Baronet (Sir Charles Forbes) should have supported the views of the hon. member for Preston, who had called himself the Representative of the labouring classes, a title he had no more right to assume than any other hon. Member. He had declared, that the people were deluded and deceived by the Bill; but could the hon. Member deny that it would give them a real, and not nominal, control over their Representatives? That was their opinion, and he trusted they would find out their secret enemies (who supported the Bill by their votes, but took every opportunity of checking its progress). The hon. member for Preston had charged the hon. member for Lancashire with deserting the cause of the people, because he did not follow the example of the hon. Member, in offering every opposition in his power to the Bill. The public, however, knew the importance and value of the measure, and they were no further deluded than that some of them, under the influence of the hon. Member, believed that the measure would not benefit them.

An Hon. Member could not allow the observation of the hon. and learned member for Kerry to pass uncontradicted. All his constituents, for he happened to represent one of the boroughs in Schedule A, would lose the right of voting under the Bill; it was, therefore, monstrous to assert that this Bill disfranchised nobody.

Mr. O'Connell, in explanation said, he had denied that the Bill would disfranchise the labouring classes.

Mr. Labouchere

was the Representative of a pot-wallopping borough, and a large portion of his constituents would be disfranchised by the operation of the Bill, but they supported it, although he had pointed out to them, that they would lose the privilege of voting. The public spirit and intelligence of the people destroyed the wish to retain privileges which were injurious to others, and he claimed for them a part of that gratitude which had been expressed, and was due to those who, out of regard to the public weal, readily sacrificed their private advantages.

Mr. D. W. Harvey

could not but observe the hollow sympathy shown by hon. Members representing rotten boroughs for the loss of the labourers' franchise. He could tell them, that where the right of voting existed only in consequence of abuse, those who now enjoyed it were ready to give it up for the benefit of their country. He found that sort of noble disinterestedness existing among all the out-voters of Colchester, who amounted to nearly 900. He had some disinclination to disfranchise this large body of his constituents, but his objections were removed by their patriotic conduct; and he was happy to think they would, as householders have the privilege of voting in the places where they resided. With regard to the resident 500 voters of Colchester, more than 300 would still retain the suffrage as householders. An hon. Baronet had objected to give the elective franchise to 10l. householders to the exclusion of those who had only 9l. 19s. 11d. the object of which was, that good government should be obtained with the least trouble. A further extension of the suffrage must depend on the conduct of future Parliaments. If the Members did their duty, they would have the confidence of the community, and there could be no desire for further changes. He believed that this would be the consequence, and that the Members elected under this Bill would truly represent public opinion; would be prepared to maintain their rights and privileges, and would not sacrifice the interest of the country for the advantage of aristocracy.

Sir E. Sugden

was convinced that the labouring classes of the people were not aware of the contents of the Bill. He had a perfect conviction that they were not, and he said this with confidence, from the conversations he had had on the subject with all classes of the people. It required all the care and attention of a lawyer to understand the bearing of some of the clauses, for instance that regarding registration. A person could not be placed on the lists unless his rent and taxes were fully paid up. How would this operate? The householder would be required to produce vouchers and receipts, but could he compel the landlord and tax-gatherer to receive the rent and taxes to a particular time, and give these vouchers? If the poor man was anxious about his vote, he was likely to become involved in litigation with his landlord. The freedom of election could not be insured under the proposed system. He had been the first to point out, that most of the present electors for Preston would be disfranchised, and it would be extremely difficult to say, in whom the right of voting would remain. The rights of the present resident voters were preserved as well as the rights of their children, in order to conciliate the various Corporations. This, however, was not a part of the original Bill, and was only conceded to allay opposition. He asserted, as a lawyer, that he could not tell what would be the operation of several of the clauses of this Bill, and, therefore, he was quite sure that it must be unknown to the people. If they knew it, the Bill would probably be as unpopular as it was now popular. He maintained, therefore, that the people were deluded by the Bill, and supported it only because they believed, as they were told, that they lost no present power, and because they had not the capacity to look to any distant contingency.

Mr. Ewart

was surprised at these imputations on the intelligence of the people of England, and he took on himself to deny them in the most positive manner. It was not necessary to have a knowledge of all the details of the Bill, to comprehend its object. The hon. and learned Member had taken credit to himself for having pointed out the effects of some of the clauses upon the Preston electors. He had paid so much attention to minute details that he had entirely lost sight of principles. The hon. member for Preston had fallen into error; he supposed, that up to the time of Henry 6th, all men had the right of voting; but it was plain, in addition to the fact that by an Act of Henry 5th, out-voters were excluded at county elections, that none but freeholders had the right to vote and that name did not include the great body of agricultural and other labourers.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

defended his constituents from the charge brought against them by the hon. and learned Member. The Livery of London consisted of 14,000 or 15,000 of the most respectable and best-informed men of the country; many of them would be disfranchised by the Bill, but none of them declined to make this sacrifice for the public good. The people had been deluded and deceived by an aristocratical faction, which had involved the country in expensive and ruinous wars for their own objects, and now the same party pretended to sympathise with the lower classes, although they really refused to grant the right of suffrage to the majority of the house-holders of the country, The clause as to the payment of the rent was a most proper one, to avoid a constituency of paupers. The people, he contended, understood the Bill fully. They showed, too, that they understood the conduct of their pretended friends; for, popular as the hon. member for Preston had once been, he was now hissed and hooted by the people. Was it meant to be said, by the hon. member for St Mawes, that the freeholders of counties did not understand the Bill? Surely not; and yet they were in favour of it; for on the division the other night, eighty county Members voted for, and only eight county Members against it. Did the hon. Member mean to say, also, that intelligence was only to be found among the constituents of the small minority, and that they alone know what was most beneficial to the country?

Petition read, and laid on the Table.

Mr. Hunt, in moving that the petition be printed, said, that it could hardly be expected he should answer all the charges that had been brought against him. He was convinced the attack was rather intended for the 19,000 persons whose petition he had presented, than for himself. He had not accused the hon. member for Lancashire of being in favour of Universal Suffrage, and had been surprised when the delegates from Manchester supposed he would support the prayer of their petition. He was the only consistent Radical Reformer in the House, and he had to reply to the attacks of the pseudo Reformers, such as the hon. members for Middlesex and Kerry. As to the assertions of these hon. Members he had just received a card from some of the delegates who happened to hear what had been asserted by the hon. member for Middlesex.

Mr. Stanley

rose to order, the hon. Member made a statement which was replied to by another hon. Gentleman, and in reply to that again he quoted the authority of their delegates, who, he said, heard it. That was the most unparliamentary course he had ever witnessed.

Mr. Hunt

was aware, that it was contrary to the rules of the House to make such allusions; and he would not, therefore, say any more on that subject. He had been attacked both by the hon. member for Middlesex and the hon. and learned member for Kerry, who, he understood from the delegates, had recommended them to be quiet until this Bill had passed, when he would be ready to go all lengths with them. It was by his desire these persons had waited on the hon. and learned Gentleman, to get him to present their petition, when he had said, he approved of every word it contained, and was prepared to support, at a proper time, all that they required. He understood that the delegates had put this question to the hon. and learned member for Kerry, viz. whether he (Mr. Hunt) had been bribed. The delegates did not believe that he had; and the object they had in asking the question was, whether the hon. and learned Gentleman believed that he had. There was not a man in that House less likely to be bribed than he was. With regard to the Bill, it would disfranchise 6,000 or 7,000 voters at Preston: and he really believed, that one of the clauses of the Bill was framed for that purpose. He was not surprised that the noble Lord, the member for Lancashire, should support it, for he had heard that a certain family had altered their proceedings, shutting up a mansion, and closing a coal-pit in that neighbourhood, in consequence of a person having been elected for that place who was obnoxious to that family. He had another petition to present, which prayed that the right of suffrage might be granted to all householders. He was not in the habit of predicting what would be the result of this or that measure, but he had no hesitation in hazarding an opinion as to the future on the present Bill. His opinion was, that if the Bill did not pass there would be a convulsion in the country; and if it did pass there would be one, on account of the vast disappointment as to the benefit which the people calculated upon. He was no prophet; but this was what he would declare to be the impression upon his mind. The Tories had now an opportunity of becoming the most popular party in the country, by supporting Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and Vote by Ballot. Nothing but this would satisfy the people, and they might acquire popularity by making themselves the instrument of granting the wishes of the people.

Mr. Portman

wished to ask the hon. member for Preston, whether he had not once taken an oath before the Lord Mayor that he would never support anything but Universal Suffrage, Annual Parliaments, and Vote by Ballot? If he had taken such an oath, his judgment upon these points must be considered to be determined more by the awful authority of the oath than by the use of his reason.

Mr. Hunt

said, he saw no impropriety in having taken such an oath. He was prepared to admit and justify it, the circumstance occurred just previous to a Westminster election. He had taken the oath before the Lord Mayor at the request of some of the electors for that place: and the purport of it was, that he would always support Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and Vote by Ballot; and if the hon. Member, as a Magistrate, would give him the opportunity of repeating it, he would willingly do so.

Mr. Cresset Pelham

was opposed to this Bill; but it did not follow, because he held this opinion, that he ought to support the hon. member for Preston in all his peculiar notions. The Bill would do mischief by extending the franchise, and Universal Suffrage would be only the greatest possible extension of the evil.

Colonel Evans

said, that the hon. member for Preston represented the people of this country as dissatisfied with the Bill. He did not charge the hon. Member with being bribed, but he was sure, if he had been, he would have acted exactly as he had done, for his object appeared to be to mislead the people. He could speak from personal experience as to their opinions when the measure was before the late Parliament. He had not the honour of a seat then in that House; and he knew that in different parts of the kingdom there was a unanimous feeling in favour of the Bill.

Mr. Hunt

again rose. He had only to say one word. If he recollected rightly, the hon. member for Rye, when at Preston, placarded, that if he were returned, he should submit a motion to Parliament to do away with the law respecting primogeniture. Whenever the hon. Member brought such a motion forward, he might calculate upon his support.

Petition to be printed.

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