Page images
PDF
EPUB

force of each superstition, and that the latter evil is an increasing one, while the former is never again likely to be a danger. The injurious effects of aristocratic influence may, however, be abundantly traced in the desire to aggregate the vast preponderance of family property in a single heir, which is often displayed in England to an extent that is an outrage upon morality; in the frequent spectacle of many children-often daughters, who are almost incapable of earning a livelihood-reduced to penury, in order that the eldest son may gratify the family vanity by an adequate display of ostentatious luxury; in the scandalous injustice of the law relating to intestacy. Although it would be an absurd exaggeration to attribute to the existence of an aristocracy the frightful contrast of extreme opulence and abject misery which is so frequent in England, it is undoubtedly true that the excessive inequality of the distribution of wealth, resulting from laws which were originally intended to secure the preponderance of a class, and from manners which were originally the product of those laws, has seriously aggravated it. The laws have for the most part passed away, but the habits that grew out of them remain, and they operate over a far larger circle than that of the aristocracy. Great as is the use of the peerage in sustaining public spirit in the nation, it is unquestionable that the passion for founding families which it produces diminishes largely the flow of private munificence to public objects, and its value in promoting laborious habits is in some degree counteracted by its manifest tendency to depress the purely intellectual classes. Rank is much less local in its influence than wealth, and wherever a powerful aristocracy exists, it overshadows intellectual eminence, and becomes its successful rival in most forms of national competition. The political advantages of an hereditary chamber are very great, but the power of unlimited veto

resting in such a chamber is a grave anomaly in a free government. Nor is it one of those anomalies which are merely theoretical. On great questions on which popular passions are violently aroused, the spirit of compromise and political sagacity so general among the upper classes in England, may usually be counted on to prevent serious collisions; and the power of creating an unlimited number of peers provides in the last resort an extreme, dangerous, but efficient remedy. There are, however, many questions on which the national judgment is plainly pronounced, but which from their nature do not appeal to any strong passions, and on these the obstructive power of the House of Lords has sometimes proved very mischievous. More than one measure of reform has thus been rejected through several successive Parliaments, in spite of unbroken and repeated majorities in the Lower House.

Looking again at the question from a purely historical standing-point, it is certain that the politicians of the Upper House were deeply tainted with the treachery and duplicity common to most English statesmen between the Restoration and the American Revolution. Most of the Bills for preventing corrupt influence in the Commons during the administration of Walpole were crushed by the influence of the minister in the House of Lords. The country was long seriously burdened, and some of the professions were systematically degraded in order to furnish lucrative posts for the younger members of the aristocratic families; and the representative character of the Lower House was so utterly perverted by the multiplication of nomination boroughs in the hands of the peers that a storm of indignation was at last raised which shook the very pillars of the constitution. Still, even in these respects, the English nobility form a marked contrast to those of the Continent. Though rank has in England almost always

brought with it a very disproportionate weight, although it is undoubtedly true that in the last years of George II. and in the first years of George III. three or four aristocratic families threatened to control the efficient power in the State, yet, on the whole, no other aristocracy has shown itself so free from the spirit of monopoly. In the great Whig period, from the Revolution till the death of Walpole, there were numerous instances of statesmen who were not of noble birth taking a foremost place in English politics. The names of Somers, Montague, Churchill, Addison, Craggs, and many others will at once occur to the reader, and the most powerful leader of this age was a simple country gentleman, a member of the House of Commons, who was so far from allowing himself to be the puppet of anyone, that one of the chief faults of his administration was his extreme reluctance to part with the smallest share of the influence of the Government. The steady support which the Whig House of Lords gave to Walpole during every stage of his career is a decisive proof not only of its enlightenment but also of its moderation. Nor is this less true of the opposite party. No Tory minister has had so absolute an authority as William Pitt, and in the period of the darkest and most bigoted Toryism the House of Lords was governed with an almost absolute sway by the knowledge and the ability of Eldon. If the nomination boroughs were perverted, as they undoubtedly were to a very large extent, to the most selfish purposes, it is also true that there was sufficient

This has been noticed by Swift, in a very remarkable paper on the Decline of the Political Influence of the Nobility, in the Intelligencer, No. 9. He declares that for above sixty years past the chief conduct of affairs hath

been generally placed in new men, with few exceptions.' He ascribes this chiefly to the defective education of the upper classes. Swift was, I believe, wrong, in imagining that aristocratic influence had declined.

public spirit among their proprietors to induce them to bring into the House of Commons a far larger proportion of young men of promise and genius than have ever, under any other system, entered its walls. If the numerous Tory creations of George III. at last altered the spirit of the body, it should at least not be forgotten that the old tradition never was extinct, that in the great struggle of the Reform Bill some of the chief aristocratic borough-owners were among the foremost advocates of the people, and that the large majority of the peers of an older creation than George III. were on the same side, while the most obstinate opponents of progress found their leaders in Eldon and Lyndhurst, who had but lately risen from the ranks.

There was, however, one marked exception to the general tenor of aristocratic politics. One attempt was made, which, if it had been successful, would have converted the English nobility into a separate caste. allude, of course, to the Peerage Bill, which was introduced by the ministry of Sunderland and Stanhope in 1719, and which was, perhaps, the most dangerous constitutional innovation since the Revolution. It was inspired by the party interest of the Whigs, and it was intended to prevent the son of George I., who was in opposition to his father, from overthrowing, if he came to the throne, the Whig majority in the Upper House by the creation of Tory peers. Had it been carried, it would have made the House of Lords an almost unchangeable body, entirely beyond the control of King or Minister or Commons. It provided that, with the exception of members of the Royal Family, the Sovereign should at no time be allowed to add more than six to the number of the English hereditary peers existing when the Bill was passed; though, whenever a

Molesworth's Hist. of England, i. 203.

peerage became extinct, he might make a creation to replace it; and also that twenty-five Scotch peers, selected in the first instance by the Sovereign and afterwards sitting by hereditary right, should be substituted for the sixteen elective peers. It is obvious that such a measure would have given the peerage all the characteristics of a close corporation, would have prevented that influx into its ranks of legal, political, and commercial talent which now constitutes one of its most distinctive merits, would have in consequence destroyed its value as a reward of genius, and its weight as a representative body, and would have abolished the only means which the constitution provides for overcoming, in extreme cases, the opposition of the Lords. Yet this Bill was introduced by the party which is the natural guardian of the popular element in the constitution, and it had at first considerable prospect of success. The King readily relinquished his prerogative of unlimited creation. The indignation excited by the lavish creations of Harley in 1712 was largely made use of. The pen of Addison was enlisted in the cause. The Bill appealed at once to the party spirit of the Whigs, who designed to perpetuate their ascendency, and to the class. feeling of the peers, who desired, by preventing new creations, to increase their consequence; and it was carried without difficulty through the Lords. Fortunately, however, a great storm of indignation was soon aroused. Steele, whose judgment it is the custom of some writers invariably to decry, employed all his talent in exposing the dangers of the scheme, and his essays, though they destroyed his friendship with Addison, and brought down upon his head the prompt vengeance of the Government,' were of immense service to the real

He had obtained a patent for the theatre of Drury Lane, but as soon as he opposed the

Government scheme the Lord Chamberlain revoked his licence for acting plays, and thus re

« PreviousContinue »