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ESSA Y S.
THE BRITISH PARLIAMENT: ITS HISTORY AND
A Book of Parliamentary Anecdote, Compiled from Au
thentic Sources. By G. H. JENNINGS and W. S. JOHNSTONE London, Paris, and New York : 1872.
THERE is a comic History of England. Why might there not be an anecdotical one, in which the salient points should be placed in broad relief by memorable sayings and striking incidents—by well-chosen traits of valour, virtue, patriotism, eloquence, and wit? There is no pleasanter mode of conveying knowledge, no surer mode of durably impressing it. The most fugitive attention is caught by anecdotes : the most volatile mind retains them so long as it retains anything; and none but the shallowest will miss the moral they point, the reflections they suggest, or the conclusions they justify.
The compilers of 'A Book of Parliamentary Anecdote' have manifested no extraordinary amount of discrimination or research. Their materials are drawn from familiar and easily accessible sources: their arrangement is open to grave objection; yet their main object, as explained in their Preface, has been attained. They have produced an amusing, useful, and interesting work ; nor is it well possible for any thoughtful reader, at all given to political speculation, to skim
their pages without picturing to himself the various stages by which the British Parliament has reached its proud pre-eminence amongst the legislative assemblies of both hemispheres—without evoking scene after scene, or crisis upon crisis, in which its independent existence was rudely threatened by high-handed prerogative from without, or its character, as an instrument of freedom and civilisation, sadly compromised by faction or corruption from within.
When Madame de Stäel was expatiating to the Emperor Alexander on the good fortune of Russia in possessing such a ruler, he replied, ' Alas, Madame, I am nothing but a happy accident.' Can the British Parliament, looking either to its origin, its constitution, or its growth, be honestly described as anything else? Where are the marks of contrivance or design, of unity of plan, of calculated harmony of parts? Which of the three branches of the Legislature at its creation or inception held, or was intended to hold, the same relative rank which it holds now? Mr. Butler relates in his • Reminiscences,' that Moreton, Chief Justice of Chester, happened to say in the House, · King, Lords, and Commons, or (looking at the first Pitt) as that right honourable member would term them, Commons, Lords, and King. Pitt called him to order, and desired the words to be taken down. They were written down by the clerk. 'Bring them to me,' said Pitt, in his loftiest tone. By this time Moreton was frightened out of his senses. "Sir,' he stammered out, addressing the Speaker, 'I am sorry to have given any offence to the right honourable member or to the House. I meant nothing. King, Lords, and Commons-Lords, King, and Commons—Commons, Lords, and King : tria juncta in uno. I meant nothing; indeed, I meant nothing.' Pitt rose : ‘I don't wish to push the matter further. The moment a man acknowledges his error, he ceases to be guilty. I have a great regard for the
honourable member, and as an instance of that regard, I give him this advice: whenever he means nothing I recommend him to say nothing.'
This incident is related in illustration of Pitt's ascendency, which must have been absolutely overwhelming if he could bully an eminent lawyer into a craven apology for words which, by no great latitude of interpretation, might be proved historically true. Again and again has the order of precedence been practically reversed. The very shifting of places which he blurted out in his confusion has occurred. Lords, King, and Commons frequently, if not normally, under the Plantagenets : King, Lords, and Commons, under the Tudors : Commons, Lords, and King, during the Great Rebellion. Where the varying arrangement fails is in not conveying an accurate impression of the contrast presented by the Commons as they started and as they stand. The obscure and unhonoured state from which they emerged recalls the dirt and seaweed whence proud Venice rose.' The burgesses were summoned solely to vote subsidies. The right of representation was regarded as an oppressive burthen from which the smaller boroughs frequently petitioned to be freed. The Commons dared not initiate any measure of legislation : too happy to procure the redress of their grievances by tacking a humble prayer or a halting hesitating condition to a money bill. They prostrated themselves like slaves before the Crown. They crouched like menials, and bent uncovered, like vassals owing suit and service, before the Lords. They received wages from their constituents : like other paid agents, they were bound to abide by their instructions; and it would have puzzled Burke to confirm the proposition by authority when he told the electors of Bristol that a member of the British Parliament was not a delegate All readers of Hume will remember the story of
Henry VIII. sending for Edward Montague, a member who was supposed to have considerable influence, and thus apostrophising him : ‘Hal man! will they not suffer my bill to pass ?' and laying his hand on Montague's head, then on his knees, "Get my bill passed by to-morrow, or else to-morrow this head of yours shall be off.' The bill was passed on the morrow. To complete the humiliation of the Commons, the Cardinal Minister treated them with no more respect than his master.
In full-blown dignity see Wolsey stand,
Law in his voice and fortune in his hand.' It was in this plenitude of pride and power in which the satirist has painted him, that Wolsey, fearing lest a subsidy of extraordinary amount (800,0001.) might not pass smoothly, announced his intention to be present when it was brought forward. He came in state, and delivered a solemn oration, setting forth that less than the sum demanded would not answer the Prince's occasions; and then looked round for a reply. "Getting none, he required answer of Mr. Speaker (Sir Thomas More), who first reverently on his knees, excusing the silence of the House, abashed at the presence of so noble a personage, able to amaze the wisest and best learned in a realm, and then, by many probable arguments, proving that for them to make answer was neither expedient nor agreeable with the ancient liberty of the House; in conclusion for himself showed that though they had all with their voices trusted him, yet except every one of them could put into his own head their several wits, he alone in so weighty a matter was unmeet to make his Grace answer.'1
The Cardinal, angry and mystified, as he well might be, suddenly arose and departed. The next time More waited on him at Whitehall, he said: 'I wish to God, Mr. More, you had been at Rome when I made you
Roper's ' Life of Sir Thomas More.'
Speaker.' “Your Grace not offended, so would I too, my Lord,' replied Sir Thomas, ‘for then should I have seen the place I long have desired to visit.' The subserviency of the Third Estate is rendered more glaring by the means which More's ready wit suggested for extricating them from the dilemma.
Queen Elizabeth expressly prohibited Parliament from meddling with State matters or ecclesiastical causes, and she sent members to prison who dared to transgress her imperial edict in these particulars. When James commanded a conference between the House of Commons and the Judges he commanded it (to use his own words) 'as an absolute king,' from whom all their privileges had been derived. He stuck to this pretension, which was rather evaded than contested ; never called together his faithful Commons except when he wanted money ; and never met them without quarrelling with them. Yet his sense of their growing importance was betrayed by his pettish exclamation when the deputation of twelve waited on him, in 1620, . at Newmarket, to present the declaration against monopolies: Chairs! chairs! here be twal kynges comin.' And again, by his apostrophe to the restive horse : · The de'il i my saul, sirrah, an you be not quiet, I’se send
you to the five hundred kings in the House of Commons; they'll quickly tame you.' When the Prince (Charles I.) and Buckingham were promoting the impeachment of the Earl of Middlesex, the canny old King told his son that he would live to have his bellyfull of Parliamentary impeachments.' The altered position of the Commons, however, appears to have been imperfectly understood until they had practically become paramount; and the ill-advised attempt to seize the five members shows how slow Charles and his counsellors were to recognise the fact that the real sovereignty of England had departed from the Crown.
During the Reform Bill agitation of 1831, an