N all social matters the aristocracy retains its old supremacy, but in politics the sceptre has departed from Judah. Up to the time of the passage of the Reform bill in 1832 the political influence of the peers was paramount; but since that epoch it has waned. The nobility, it is true, like the Queen, still wears the insignia of power, but the only use of the coronet now is to put it on the coffin. The House of Lords, it is true, is one of the estates of the realm; its assent is nominally indispensable to the validity of every law; but both Crown and peers are dragged at the chariot wheels of the Commons. The Lords make a good fight; they die hard, but their political decadence is undoubted. The most august assemblage in Europe, as Britons like to call the House of Lords, is only a body to register the decrees of the Lower Chamber; and if it dares dispute the will of the Prime Minister or the Commons, it is threatened with an invasion of new members, to which the irruptions of the barbarians into the Roman Senate or the Parisian mob into the various French assemblies were antecedents and parallels. These ancient and foreign assaults preceded revolution, and the British aristocrats know the signs, and yield.
Ever since the memorable battle between William IV and his ministers, in 1832, and the determination of Lord Grey to create peers in sufficient numbers to carry the Reform bill, the House of Lords has recognized its subordinate position. After repeated struggles, after rejecting the bill again and again, after dissolutions of Parliament and changes of the ministry, after general elections, which triumphantly supported the measure for extending representation, the Lords were still obstinate. The King was on their side, but the people were determined, and, for the second time in English history, King and Lords found themselves weaker than the Commons. Charles I. was the principal personage in the contest of his day, and the nobility stood behind him; two hundred years later it was the Lords who led the defence, while the King was in the background, although an ardent ally. At last the Prime Minister, himself an earl, advised the King to create a sufficient number of peers to turn the scale, but the King refused. Thereupon the Ministry resigned, and the Duke of Wellington undertook to form a new Government and stem the tide. But he also proved powerless. The former ministry returned, and William IV. made his submission in these words: "The King grants permission to Earl Grey and to his Chancellor, Lord Brougham, to create such a number of peers as will be sufficient to insure the passing of the Reform bill." Upon this, rather than be overwhelmed by the new creations, a majority of the Opposition absented themselves from the House of Lords, and the bill was passed. It was known then that the aristocracy of England would never again be able seriously to withstand the will of the people. The knell of their political power had sounded.
They retain, nevertheless, all their conservative instincts, and rally round a sinking cause with a devotion which one cannot but admire. Noblesse oblige, and the latest additions, the grandsons of barbers and tailors, are as inflexible in their loyalty to their order as those descended from the Plantagenets. Even Mr. Gladstone's creations desert him on the first opportunity; the very colleagues of his cabinet, the Radicals of the Radicals, go over to the enemy when once they get within the precincts and the influence of the House of Lords. For the peers vote in solid phalanx; perhaps too solidly or stolidly. They cannot see that sometimes to yield a little would be to save a little. Their instinct is to defend every outwork, to repel every assault.
But it is only when their rank or their retroactive policy is in danger that they pay much attention to politics. Shorn of their ancient influence, they probably dislike to be constantly reminded of their insignificance, and are apparently indifferent to the ordinary course of public affairs. Some of this indifference, it is true, may proceed from senility. Of those who attend the House of Lords one-fifth have passed the age of threescore and ten, thirty-seven are upward of seventy five, and twenty-three are octogenarians. The average age of a peer is fifty-eight. Bouvier defines senility to be "a loss of energy in some of the intellectual operations, while the affections remain natural and unperverted." This exactly describes the condition of the ancient peers, if not of the entire venerable body, whose affections still cling to their former consequence, though their intellect and energy are insufficient to retain it.
But incapacity as much as decrepitude is responsible for the apathy of the Lords. The ability of the peerage is for the most part confined to the men who have forced their way into it. Out of twenty-eight dukes only one has shown marked political intelligence, and he would hardly have attracted attention had he been born in a lower degree. Of all the other nobles long descended Lord Derby and Lord Salisbury only are prominent, and these cognate statesmen themselves can hardly be called men of genius. Clever men, it is true, do not abound in any class of life, and Diogenes needed his lamp on the outside of the House of Lords; but the peers are the aristoi, the best; the legislators for a nation. They have every advantage of education, association with the ablest, early and wide experience of affairs, the habit of authority, the confidence of their equals, the deference of the mass; yet the body is not even second rate in business capacity or political tact, to say nothing of intellectual acquirement or power. The peers enjoy but do not employ their splendid opportunities. The younger ones make no pretence of fitting themselves for their functions. I knew, indeed, one eldest son of an earl who went as a clerk in a government office, to learn government business, but I never heard of another, and he soon grew tired of the drudgery and returned to his yacht and his drag. The cadets of great houses sometimes devote themselves to politics, but the heirs can dispense with the effort, for they will be peers all the same.
Even the additions to the peerage seldom display ability after they enter the charmed portals. Sir Stafford Northcote and Mr. Lowe were both considered shelved when they were turned into peers. Their promotion was their greatest defeat. The House of Lords was called the Hospital for Incurables in Horace Walpole's time. What would he have christened it today?
Besides all this, it is a notable fact that genius, though it may be ennobled, is rarely transmitted. It is the title, not the talent, that is hereditary. No descendant of a Lord Chancellor has ever rivalled his ancestor, and of all the successors of those whose ability raised them to the House of Lords, only one is famous to-day. Instead of fostering or developing talent, rank seems to have a crushing or withering influence, and the aristocracy is decidedly less brilliant since it has been extended.
Under these circumstances the peers are wise, perhaps, to accept the situation. How should they fight when they have no weapons? In 1878 there were only four divisions, as the formal votings are called, in the House of Lords, and these were on questions of minor importance. In 1879, when the foreign policy of the Government was at stake, only about half of the peers could be found to attend four divisions. Thirty-five peers were absent altogether from 1875 to 1880. In 1877 it was considered remarkable that the average attendance of peers was close upon one hundred during the fifty- two sittings before Easter, and there are six hundred members of the House. In 1881 their admirers boasted that "about one hundred and thirty peers address the House each session, and half the debates go on until close upon the dinner hour!" which is eight o'clock. The Lords meet at five.
It is seldom indeed that the state of the country detains the hereditary legislator from his evening meal. Dinner parties in London are made with reference to the hours of the House of Commons, which does not sit on Wednesdays or Saturdays, and there are five invitations for those evenings to one for any other. But you can catch your lord for any night; he is never prevented by public business at least, not three times in a session.
An ordinary sitting of the House of Lords is a dull and dreary ceremony. The hall is lofty, and in the dim light of an English afternoon reminds one of some stately vault where the remains of the ancestral institution may be imagined to repose. A few straggling gentlemen are seated on the benches, some mumbling remarks are made, some antiquated form gone through in the darkness a new peer is perhaps presented in his robes, or a bill comes up from the Commons and the august assembly adjourns. The business of the House is carried on by thirty or forty peers, and these, with rare exceptions, maintain the debates of the session. The uniformity of costume is broken only by the Lord Chancellor as he enters or leaves with his robes and his train-bearer, or the ghostly bishops who sit on benches by themselves, in their lawn sleeves. The mover and seconder of an address that is offered to the Queen at the opening of every session are always in levee dress for they are supposed to stand in the presence of Majesty, though Majesty never is there but otherwise the peers are plainly clad, the older ones, as a rule, unfashionably, and more than half of them wear their hats. All is dismal, decorous, and funereal.
I have, however, seen the chamber filled in every seat, and the peeresses' gallery crowded. When an opportunity occurs to signify their opposition to a liberal measure the Lords turn out in force, and if, as once in a very great while happens, the sitting is late, the wives and daughters of peers come in from dinner in laces and diamonds, while the peers themselves on these occasions are often in evening dress on the floor. After some bill to which their lordships are opposed has passed the House of Commons, the patricians proceed to set forth their arguments elaborately, and sometimes violently. I have been present at as heated discussions in the aristocratic chamber as ever I witnessed in the American Capitol.
When the bill to disestablish the Irish Church was debated, the Prime Minister, Mr. Gladstone, stood on the steps of the throne in an excited House while Lord Salisbury denounced him in terms as an "arrogant man," and every one turned to see how he took it. For there is no admission to the floor of the House for ministers who are not peers. Privy Councillors, the eldest sons of peers, and members of the diplomatic corps may stand on the steps of the throne ; and, if the session is long and they become fatigued, these personages often sit or squat in extremely undignified postures behind the railings that surround the sovereign's seat. In this way the Prime Minister who had created thirty or forty peers in his time, and could have doubled the number had he chosen, had no seat in the aristocratic presence, and remained standing while he was berated by a member of the nobility.
Not only individuals, but the Commons themselves, the coordinate branch of the Legislature, have no place assigned them in the Upper Chamber, except at the entrance and below the bar; a relic this of the ancient arrogance with which the representatives of the people were treated by the peers. Even when the Commons are summoned to hear the reading of a speech or message from the throne, no seats are allowed them ; they rush in from their own House, pell-mell and headlong, like a parcel of schoolboys, to secure a place as near as possible to the bar which divides them from the nobility.
On the night I speak of Dean Stanley was on the steps of the throne by favor, for he had many friends among the ushers, and "black rods," as well as among the Lords. He took me in to dine with him at the deanery, which is close to the Parliament houses. One of the Irish archbishops whose fate was at stake accompanied us, for the debate was closing and a division was imminent, and nobody wished to go far to dinner. The Dean was an intimate friend of the prelate, and said to me sadly that this might be the last occasion when the archbishop would sit in the House of Lords. It was like dining with a man before his execution. But the archbishop was brave and talked on indifferent topics with the American democrat.
That night members who rarely or never set foot in the House of Lords were present in scores, but at ordinary divisions the number who vote, small as it is compared with the aggregate of the peers, is collected only by the energetic pressure of the politician called the "whip," because he whips the noblemen in. The peers seem to value their privilege principally as a means of asserting their opinions when these are opposed to the policy certain in the end to prevail.
While I was in England the Lords, as a body, resisted every step in the direction of progress or reform. They opposed the ballot, the educational system now in force, the disestablishment of the Irish Church, the abolition of purchase in the army, and every measure calculated to extend the suffrage, to favor the sale of land, or to modify the condition of Ireland; yet in every case they were obliged to yield. Not long ago Mr. Gladstone declared: "Only for fifteen years of the last fifty has the ministry of the day possessed the confidence of the House of Lords;" that is, only for fifteen years out of fifty has the House of Lords been in harmony with the Government which represented the judgment and will of the people of England.
If all modern ideas are not wrong, if liberalism does not lead, as the peers believe, only to revolution, corruption, and anarchy, the condition of England has improved since the overthrow of the Lords. By their fruits ye shall know them. The catalogue of reforms which they have opposed proves not only their impotence in actual politics, but the unfavorable nature of such influence as they still retain. This is shown not only negatively by what they have been unable to accomplish, but by the prosperity of the country without them or in spite of them. Since political power has passed into other hands the population of England has doubled, its wealth has quintupled, its commerce has extended beyond comparison, its manufactures have crowded the shops and warehouses of the world. The material comfort of the people of every class has been marvellously increased, education has been more widely diffused, and whatever goes to make up the prosperity and happiness of a nation has been furthered and promoted since the downfall of the Lords.
Newspapers in their present stage of development, navigation by steam, railroads, telegraphs, the various and extended uses of electricity all have come into existence under the new order of things; all are the inventions or improvements of the middle class; all are the natural and legitimate result of the great measures which the House of Lords resisted. Meanwhile, the grandeur of the empire is in no way diminished; the influence of England is as potent as in any previous era; her boundaries are widened; in Africa and Asia she stretches out her territories. But her best soldiers are not the sons of lords; her lawyers spring from the middle, or even the lower class; her merchant princes may not be presented at court; her men of letters and science and art are not aristocrats; her greatest Prime Minister for a generation refuses to be a peer.Source: Aristocracy In England by Adam Badeau - Franklin Square 1886, Copyright, 1885, 1886. [As Written] Original text, may contain OCR errors.
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
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