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The elevation of Mr. Abercromby to the peerage in May, 1839, caused a vacancy in the representation of the city of Edinburgh. A meeting of the electors was called to consider of the manner in which the vacancy should be supplied. At this meeting the following Speech was made.
MY LORD PROVOST AND GENTLEMEN,
At the request of a very large and respectable portion of your body, I appear before you as a candidate for a high and solemn trust, which, uninvited, I should have thought it presumption to solicit, but which, thus invited, I should think it cowardice to decline. If I had felt myself justified in following my own inclinations, I am not sure that even a summons so honorable as that which I have received would have been sufficient to draw me away from pursuits far better suited to my taste and temper than the turmoil of political warfare. But I feel that my lot is cast in times in which no man is free to judge, merely according to his own taste and temper, whether he will devote himself to active or to contemplative life; in times in which society has a right to demand, from every one of its members, active and strenuous exertions. I have, therefore, obeyed your call; and I now present myself before you for the purpose of offering to you, not, what I am sure you would reject with disdain, flattery, degrading alike to a candidate, and to a constituent body; but such reasonable, candid, and manly explanations as become the mouth of a free man ambitious of the confidence of a free people.
It is hardly necessary for me to say that I stand here unconnected with this great community. It would be mere affectation not to acknowledge that with respect to local questions I have much to learn ; but I hope that you will find in me no sluggish or inattentive learner. From an early age I have felt a strong interest in Edinburgh, although attached to Edinburgh by no other ties than those which are common to me with multitudes; that tie which attaches every man of Scottish blood to the ancient and renowned capital of our race; that tie which attaches every student of history to the spot ennobled by so many great and memorable events; that tie which attaches every traveller of taste to the most beautiful of British cities ; and that tie which attaches every lover of literature to a place which; since it has ceased to be the seat of empire, has derived from poetry, philosophy, and eloquence a far higher distinction than empire can bestow. If to those ties it shall now be your pleasure to add a tie still closer and more peculiar, I can only assure you that it shall be the study of my life so to conduct myself in these our troubled times that you may have no reason to be ashamed of your choice.
Those Gentlemen who invited me to appear as a candidate before you were doubtless acquainted with the part which I took in public affairs during the three first Parliaments of the late King. Circumstances have since that time undergone great alteration ; but no alteration has taken place in my principles. I do not mean to say that thought, discussion, and the new phenomena produced by the operation of a new representative system, have not led me to modify some of my views on questions of detail ; but, with respect to the fundamental principles of government, my opinions are still what they were when, in 1831 and 1832, I took part, according to the measure of my abilities, in that great pacific victory which purified the representative system of England, and which first gave a real representative system to Scotland. Even at that time, Gentlemen, the leaning of my mind was in favour of one measure to which the illustrious leader of the Whig party, whose name ought never to be mentioned without gratitude and reverence in any assembly of British electors, I mean Earl Grey, was understood to entertain strong objections, and to which his Cabinet, as a Cabinet, was invariably opposed. I speak of the vote by ballot. All that has passed since that time confirms me in the view which I was then inclined to take of that important question. At the same time I do not think that all the advantages are on one side and all the disadvantages on the other. I must admit
that the effect of the practice of secret voting would be to withdraw the voter from the operation of some salutary and honorable, as well as of some pernicious and degrading motives. But seeing, as I cannot help seeing, that the practice of intimidation, instead of diminishing, is gaining ground, I am compelled to consider whether the time has not arrived when we are bound to apply what seems the only efficient remedy. And I am compelled to consider whether, in doing so, I am not strictly following the principles of the Reform Bill to the legitimate conclusions. For surely those who supported the Reform Bill intended to give the people of Britain a reality, not a delusion; to destroy nomination, and not to make an outward show of destroying it; to bestow the franchise, and not the name of the franchise; and least of all, to give suffering and humiliation under the name of the franchise. If men are to be returned to Parliament, not by popular election, but by nomination, then I say without hesitation that the ancient system was much the best. Both systems alike sent men to Parliament who were not freely chosen by independent constituent bodies: but under the old system that there was little or no need of intimidation, while, under the new system, we have the misery and disgrace produced by intimidation added to the process. If, therefore, we are to have nomination, I prefer the nomination which used to take place at Old Sarum to the nomination which now takes place at Newark. In both cases you have members returned at the will of one landed proprietor: but at Newark you have two hundred ejectments into the bargain, to say nothing of the mortification and remorse endured by all those who, though they were not ejected, yet voted against their consciences from fear of ejectment.
There is perhaps no point on which good men of all parties are more completely agreed than on the necessity of restraining and punishing corruption in the election of Members of Parliament. The evils of corruption are doubtless very great; but it appears to me that those evils which are attributed to corruption may, with equal justice, be attributed to intimidation, and that intimidation produces also some monstrous evils with which corruption cannot be reproached. In both cases alike the elector commits a breach of trust. In both cases alike he employs for his own advantage an important power which was confided to him, that it might be used, to the best of his judgment, for the general good of the community. Thus far corruption and intimidation operate in
the same manner. But there is this difference betwixt the two systems; corruption operates by giving pleasure, intimidation by giving pain. To give a poor man five pounds causes no pain: on the contrary it produces pleasure. It is in itself no bad act: indeed, if the five pounds were given on another occasion, and without a corrupt object, it might pass for a benevolent act. But to tell a man that you will reduce him to a situation in which he will miss his former comforts, and in which his family will be forced to beg their bread, is a cruel act. Corruption has a sort of illegitimate relationship to benevolence, and engenders some feelings of a cordial and friendly nature. There is a notion of charity connected with the distribution of the money of the rich among the needy, even in a corrupt manner. The comic writer who tells us that the whole system of corruption is to be considered as a commerce of generosity on one side and of gratitude on the other, has rather exaggerated than misrepresented what really takes place in many of these English constituent bodies where money is lavished to conciliate the favour and obtain the suffrages of the people. But in intimidation the whole process is an odious one. The whole feeling on the part of the elector is that of shame, degradation, and hatred of the person to whom he has given his vote. The elector is indeed placed in a worse situation than if he had no vote at all; for there is not one of us who would not rather be without a vote than be compelled to give it to the person whom he dislikes above all others.
Thinking, therefore, that the practice of intimidation has all the evils which are to be found in corruption, and that it has other evils which are not to be found in corruption, I was naturally led to consider whether it was possible to prevent it by any process similar to that by which corruption is restrained. Corruption, you all know, is the subject of penal laws. If it is brought home to the parties, they are liable to severe punishment. Although it is not often that it can be brought home, yet there are instances. I remember several men of large property confined in Newgate for corruption. Penalties have been awarded against offenders to the amount of five hundred pounds. Many members of Parliament have been unseated on account of the malpractices of their agents. But you cannot, I am afraid, repress intimidation by penal laws. Such laws would infringe the most sacred rights of property. How can I require a man to deal with tradesmen who have voted against him, or to renew the leases of tenants
who have voted against him? What is it that the Jew says in the play?
“I'll not answer that,
But say it is my humour.”
Or, as a Christian of our own time has expressed himself, “I have a right to do what I will with my own." There is a great deal of weight in the reasoning of Shylock and the Duke of Newcastle. There would be an end of the right of property if you were to interdict a landlord from ejecting a tenant, if you were to force a gentleman to employ a particular butcher, and to take as much beef this year as last year. The principle of the right of property is that a man is not only to be allowed to dispose of his wealth rationally and usefully, but to be allowed to indulge his passions and caprices, to employ whatever tradesmen and labourers he chooses, and to let, or refuse to let, his land according to his own pleasure, without giving any reason or asking any body's leave. I remember that, on one of the first evenings on which I sate in the House of Commons, Mr. Poulett Thompson proposed a censure on the Duke of Newcastle for His Grace's conduct towards the electors of Newark. Sir Robert Peel opposed the motion, not only with considerable ability, but with really unanswerable reasons. He asked if it was meant that a tenant who voted against his landlord was to keep his lease for ever. If so, tenants would vote against a landlord to secure themselves, as they now vote with a landlord to secure themselves. I thought, and think, this argument unanswerable ; but then it is unanswerable in favour of the ballot; for, if it be impossible to deal with intimidation by punishment, you are bound to consider whether there be any means of prevention; and the only mode of prevention that has ever been suggested is the ballot. That the ballot has disadvantages to be set off against its advantages, I admit; but it appears to me that we have only a choice of evils, and that the evils for which the ballot is a specific remedy are greater than any which the ballot is likely to produce. Observe with what exquisite accuracy the ballot draws the line of distinction between the power which we ought to give to the proprietor and the power which we ought not to give him. It leaves the proprietor the absolute power to do what he will with his own. Nobody calls upon him to say why he ejected this tenant, or took away his custom from that tradesman. It leaves him at liberty to follow his own tastes, to