THE influence of the Peers is not confined to their own chamber. It is through the House of Commons that the aristocracy has long exercised a great portion of its sway.
In the early part of the present century the lower House was at once dependent and corrupt. Nearly all its members were the direct nominees of the Lords, or were returned through their interest. For a member of Parliament may be returned without an election. He is nominated with the proper forms, and if there is no opposition, he is declared returned without any voting whatever. Thus 10 members were returned by 35 places in England and Wales in which there were scarcely any electors at all; 90 members were returned by 46 places with less than 40 electors each, and 37 members by 19 places having not more than 100 electors. In Scotland, in 1823, when the population was 2,000,000, the total number of persons enjoying the franchise was less than 3,000. In 1831 the county of Argyll, with a population of 100,000, contained only 115 persons entitled to vote. Caithness, with 30,000 inhabitants, had 11 voters. Edinburgh and Glasgow had each a constituency of 33 persons.
In the county of Bute, which had 14,000 inhabitants, there was only one resident elector. This voter was once the only person present at an election besides the sheriff and the returning officer. He took the chair, constituted the meeting, called over the roll, and answered to his own name. He then moved and seconded his own nomination, put the question to vote, and was unanimously returned.
In 1816, in England and Wales, 218 members of the House of Commons were returned by the influence or nomination of 87 peers, 13T were returned by 90 commoners, and 16 by the Government, making 371 nominee members. Of the 45 members for Scotland, 31 were returned by 21 peers and the remainder by 14 commoners. Of the 100 Irish members, 51 were returned by 36 peers and 20 by 19 commoners. Out of the 658 members of the House of Commons, 487 were returned by nomination, and 171 only were representatives of independent constituencies.
Seats were thus held in both Houses by hereditary right, and the control of the Peers over the constitution and proceedings of the Commons was direct and flagrant. The Duke of Norfolk was represented by 11 members, the Earl of Lonsdale by 9, the Earl of Darlington by ?, the Duke of Rutland, the Marquis of Buckingham, and Lord Carrington each by 6 ; and the right of the patron to control the votes and the political conduct of his members was unquestioned.
It was natural that under such circumstances seats should be sold as openly as estates. Nine thousand pounds were paid for the representation of one borough to its owner, and from 2,500 to 5,000 was an ordinary price. From the King down, all were engaged in the shameless traffic. The sale of seats was first restricted in 1809, but it continued by private arrangement until 1832, under the auspices of the Secretary of the Treasury himself.
The aristocracy that created and enforced this system is the same that exists to-day ; shorn of its authority, it is true, curtailed of its proportions, but unchanged in its instincts and aspirations, hankering after its former prerogatives, fighting for every privilege, clutching after every fading relic of power.
The various reform bills have lessened, but not abolished, the influence of the Lords over the House of Commons. The control of the popular assembly may be slipping from their grasp, but they have not yet let go their hold. As late as 1838 all but proprietors in land were excluded from seats in the lower chamber, and not until 1858 was every property qualification abandoned. There is still no salary allowed to members, a provision intended to restrict admission to the wealthier sort. Even since the extension of the franchise, the members elected from the working class can be counted on the fingers. Sixty of the "representatives of the people" in the last Parliament were sons of peers, more than half were of the aristocratic caste, and one-fourth were titled. The "popular assembly" still remains in part one of the possessions and appurtenances of the aristocracy.
There are few noblemen to-day who are unable to secure the return of their eldest sons to the House of Commons. By many constituencies the heir is still elected as a matter of course. Sometimes two great families contest the seat for a county between them, as in Yorkshire, where the houses of Harewood and Fitzwilliam, within the memory of men now living, expended a hundred thousand pounds apiece in a struggle in which the eldest son of each was standing for Parliament. The Fitzwilliams succeeded, and, until 1870, no member of either family visited the other. It was my fortune to be present when, after all these years, a reconciliation was effected, and the Harewoods came to a dinner with the Fitzwilliams.
The political influence of the Duke of Buccleugh was so great that in 1880 Mr. Gladstone thought fit to attack it in the Duke's own county, where the eldest son, the Marquis of Dalkeith, had always, as a matter of course, been returned. Here Mr. Gladstone proposed himself as a competitor. It was bearding the Douglas in his hall. The struggle was fierce, and few more significant signs of the times have lately been observed than this presentation of himself by a Liberal leader in the stronghold of a, Tory family. That he should have succeeded was more portentous still.
These eldest sons of peers and their younger brothers and cousins, of course, turn popular representation into a mockery. They can have no sympathies with a people rousing itself from the enthralment of centuries, while the other nominees of lords must serve their masters in order to retain their places. Mr. Disraeli entered Parliament as a Radical, but soon found it more profitable to play the part of a Tory. The Marquis of Salisbury, the late Prime Minister, the most arrant aristocrat and violent partisan of his order in the kingdom, the bitterest English enemy of democracy alive, was for years a member of the so-called popular chamber, a "representative of the people!" and he has hosts of followers there to-day, sons of peers, heirs to dukedoms even peers of Ireland all "commoners," supposed to balance the influence of the lords.
I have already told that when even the Liberals in Parliament were in want of a leader, they turned, not to a manufacturer, like Bright or Forster, a man of the people, but to the eldest son of a duke the Marquis of Harrington. But the aristocrats call themselves Liberals, the political descent of the Whigs, cannot, in the nature of things, be very earnest for reform. Some are simply designing men who strive to lead the party which they fear openly to oppose, and hope to stem the tide by seeming to swim with the current. Others, like the Girondins of France in the first Revolution, undoubtedly believe that moderate reform is advisable, or at least inevitable, and are willing to contribute to bring it about, thinking amelioration better than demolition, and alteration preferable to extirpation. But irreconcilable differences between the Liberals and the Radicals are constantly becoming apparent. Great peers, whose families have been Whig since the days of William and Mary, are found of late on the Conservative side. The Earls of Fortescue and Fitzwilliam have gone clean over. The Duke of Argyll is on the road, while men ennobled by the present Prime Minister deserted him as soon as they were seated in the House of Lords.
A few sons of peers are liberal at heart, in spite of their position and surroundings, and if they had been born in different spheres, might have held different politics. Many years ago I talked with one of these who was then the heir of a Tory minister. I had lately arrived from America, where I had been so placed as to see from the inside all the wild scramble for office that occurs when a new President comes into power. I made some comment on this strife, comparing it with the condition of things in England. But the aristocrat replied: "All this is sure eventually to happen here. "Whatever you are we shall be." He did not seem to say it regretfully, and went on to speak of the way in which a man is fettered by circumstances. One cannot always be himself, he said, nor act for himself. Friends and position control him, and whether he will or no, he is swept on by the current in which he was born. I often thought of this conversation afterward, when the commoner had become a peer and a member of a Tory cabinet more retroactive in its policy than any in which his father ever sat, and defended measures as different as possible from any ever suggested in America.
The younger sons sometimes emancipate themselves more completely. It is more natural that they should be liberal ; interest and anticipation do not trammel them so closely. There are brothers of earls who are almost radical, especially when the incumbents have many sons. But I can remember only one heir to a peerage whose love for the people overcame the instincts of his order, and he died before his fidelity could be tested by possession.
Thus the House of Commons remains to a great extent under aristocratic influences. It is impossible that the sons and heirs of high noblemen and great landed proprietors should earnestly support measures looking to the overthrow of their class, the abolition of their privileges, and the eventual dissipation or confiscation of their estates. These will always be found openly or covertly working in favor of the nobility, whose interests are now invariably opposed to those of the masses; while in any great political emergency the influence of the peers is brought to bear with prodigious force on the plebeian members of the House of Commons. The most potent engine then is always the social one. Invitations to great houses are lavished upon irresolute adversaries; peeresses leave cards on the wives of timid or aspiring members, and fashion opens its most exclusive doors to those whose votes are still, as in other days, for sale. There have been instances of men who held out long against every temptation of place or power, but finally succumbed to the blandishments of Tory duchesses. Society is conservative in London, and the path to Hatfield House, like the floor of another place not so desirable to visit, is paved with Liberal intentions and Radical promises.
Mr. Gladstone once declared that the love of an Englishman for freedom is hardly stronger than his love for aristocracy, and Sir "William Molesworth, one of the most astute of recent political philosophers, asserts that this feeling in England has the force of a religion. But the god is a fetich. [As Written]
RANK AND TITLE
THE PRINCE OF WALES
AMERICANS AT COURT
THE CROWN IN POLITICS
QUEENS' PERSONAL CHARACTER
SERVANTS' HALL PRECEDENCE
THE HOUSE OF LORDS
THE PRINCESS OF WALES
A NOBLEMAN INDEED
POMPS & VANITIES OF CHURCH
CHURCH & STATE
HOUSE OF COMMONS
LITERATURE & THE LORDS
THE LONDON SEASON