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political power, the only true basis of constitutional rights, the only legitimate parent of good laws : and we hold it as an indisputable truth, that all government, which is based on any other foundation, has a perpetual tendency to degenerate into anarchy or despotism, or to beget class or wealth idolatry, on the one hand, and poverty and misery on the other. While, however, we contend for the principle of self-government, we admit that laws will only be just in proportion as the people are enlightened, on which, socially and politically, the happiness of all must depend; but as self-interest unaccompanied by virtue, seeks its own exclusive benefits, so will the exclusive and privileged classes of society ever seek to perpetuate their power, and to proscribe the enlightenment of the people. Hence we are induced to believe that the enlightenment of all will sooner emanate from the exercise of political power by all the people, than by their continuing to trust to the selfish government of the few.”
William. Then though you admit that “laws will be just only in proportion as the people are enlightened, and that on this, socially and politically, the happiness of all depends,” yet you would place the power in the hands of the people in their present confessedly unenlightened state,—thus, by your own admission, incurring the certain destruction of “the social and political happiness of all.” This seems rather a blunder. However, go on.
Robert. “A strong conviction of these truths, coupled as that conviction is, with the belief that most of our social and political evils can be traced to corrupt and exclusive legislation, and that the remedy will be found in extending to the people at large the exercise of those rights now monopolized by a few, bas induced us to make some exertion towards embodying our principles in the People's Charter. . It has often been argued that Universal Suffrage, as well as the other essentials for the exercise of that right, could not be reduced to practice. This is therefore an attempt to show the contrary; and we think it would be practically found to be a simpler, cheaper, and better mode of securing to the whole people their elective rights, than the present expensive machinery, by which the rich and ambitious few are enabled to pauperize and enslave the industrious many."
William. Well, I confess your argument does not appear very lucid, but, as far as I make out, you consider universal suffrage to be the principal point. Am I right? Robert. Yes.
William. No property qualification, annual parliaments, equal representation, payment of members, and vote by ballot,
are chiefly “essential for the free exercise of the right" of uni. versal suffrage; and not of any very great importance in themselves. So that what we have principally to consider is universal suffrage.
Robert. Well, be it so.
William. Well, let us consider these two points. First, however, let us understand what you mean by universal suffrage.
Robert. I mean of course that all persons should have the right of voting.
William. Would you give women a vote, as well as men ?
Robert. Why no, you see women don't enter much into public matters. Besides, they would be too apt to be led away, and vote according to the mere impulse of their feelings.
William. Very good reasons, if it be so. But then do you not see that strictly speaking you have given up your point of universal suffrage already? You disfranchise half the population by a stroke of the pen. Then with regard to children, are they to have votes?
Robert. No, not till they attain the age of twenty-one.
William, But is not that rather hard on intelligent and well-conducted young men of twenty? I think I know several young men of that age who are more fit to vote than others I could name of twenty-five, or even fifty.
Robert. Very likely: but then there must be a line drawn somewhere. The law and custom of the country has fixed twenty-one as the age at which the rights of manhood begin; and you must see that uld be impossible to give the privilege of voting to any who were under that age, because they were judged to be of superior intelligence to the rest. William. Just so.
I quite agree with you. But all this goes against your theory of universal suffrage, and at once proves that it is not a right. You disfranchise half the popuIation, because they are not likely to have turned their minds to political matters, and would be too apt to vote from mere impulse; and you disfranchise a large proportion of the other half, many of them no doubt intelligent young men, because law or custom has drawn an arbitrary line, and decided that they should not vote before the age of twenty-one. All this confirms the view which I have always been accustomed to take of the franchise, namely, that it is not an inherent personal right, but a privilege or trust conferred by law. The law of the land
is, after all, what we must look to to determine the suffrage. It is not a right independently of the law, but one conferred by the law. If it be better for the interests of the country, the franchise may be still further limited by the same power. Are there not any other persons whom you would exclude from the franchise ?
Robert. Yes, I would exclude insane persons and persons convicted of crime, especially of bribery.
William. Quite right; no one could object to that. But I am inclined to think that the rule might with advantage be extended further. For instance, there are many persons who, though not absolutely insane, yet act very foolishly and violently. There are many reckless improvident persons who squander all their wages in public-houses, and bring their families to ruin : others who if they had the power would pull down the whole fabric of society, and spread anarchy through the land. Such persons as these seem to me as bad as madmen, if not actually so. Then there are many ignorant thoughtless persons who have no right views of their duties and responsibilities ; others who would sell their votes for a pot of beer. All these persons would make very bad voters, and had much better be off the list than on it.
Robert. Perhaps so, if you could tell who are persons of this description ; but it would be impossible to draw the line.
William. Impossible certainly to draw a correct line which should exclude all objectionable voters, and include all good ones; just as in fixing the age at which the privilege of voting should be conferred, you cannot help passing over a great many persons who are well qualified to vote, and admitting a great number of worthless persons. But, as with regard to age, so in other respects, law and custom have always endeavoured to fix certain qualifications which should be in a general way, tests of fitness for the elective franchise. The franchise has grown up with our other institutions, and should not be violently or suddenly altered. The great beauty of the English Constitution is, that it has gradually from time to time adapted itself to the circumstances of the people. The old law of the country fixed the forty shilling freehold for country voters, and conferred the right of voting in boroughs, on the burgesses or freemen. I have no doubt that these qualifications included in a general way the large proportion of the intelligence and respectability of the country. The recent Reform Bill, which I need not remind you was passed with the general concurrence of the nation, has fixed another standard, that is, the living in a house of the annual value of £10, which in a rough way is a tolerable test of respectability.
Robert. What do you mean to say that all persons who live in £10 houses are intelligent and respectable, and those who live in smaller houses the reverse ?
William. No: no more than I should say that all young men of twenty-one were prudent and intelligent, and all young men of twenty the contrary.
But as in the case of age, you admit that law and custom must draw some fixed line, so I think it must be in respect to other qualifications. The £10 household franchise is what we have at present, and I see no reason for changing it. In large and populous towns where house rent is dear, the franchise embraces a large portion of the population. In smaller boroughs, where house rent generally is cheaper, a piece of land in any part of the borough may be taken with the house, so as to make up the amount required by law. And this I say is to a certain extent a test of respectability, and a proof that a man has a stake in the country. I do not mean to say that many persons whose houses are worth only £8 or £5, and many who have not a roof to cover them, may not be honest and intelligent; still in a rough way, as I suid, which is in fact the only way in which such a business can be regulated, the living in a £10 house gives a man a character for respectability, just as having attained the age of twenty-one may be supposed to prove a certain maturity of mind. Prove to me that the making the franchise universal would add to the intelligence and independence of the constituency, and I would willingly vote for it;, but I confess that until the mass of workmen get a better education than they do, and drink less beer and spirits, and go to Church more regularly, and, in short, behave altogether more respectably and properly than at present, I think it would be better not to extend the suffrage. Tell me honestly, do you think, as far as your own experience goes, that the majority of artisans in our manufacturing towns who at present are without the suffrage, are well principled and well conducted enough to exercise this important privilege with advantage to the country and are there not also, especially in agricultural districts, many who, without any fault of their own, are not sufficiently well informed on matters of policy and government, to form a right judgment on such subjects ?
Robert. Well, if you ask me plainly, I must say that, as far as my experience goes, a great number of the inferior workmen and labourers certainly have not education and habits of conduct sufficient to enable them to form a very profound judgment on political subjects. But then I think the question may be regarded in another point of view. All classes ought to have their interests represented in Parliament. The working classes are at present unrepresented. Give them the suffrage, and they will send representatives who will look to their interests better than they have hitherto been attended to.
William. That seems to me to be contrary to the principle which
you laid down just now, when you said that " self-interest, unaccompanied by virtue, seeks its own exclusive benefit." This to be sure you apply to the richer classes, but now as it seems to me, you wish to bring the same objectionable principle into operation amongst the lower classes. Suppose for a moment that all the working classes had votes, and used them with a view to what they considered their own interests; suppose the right of universal suffrage, together with the other five points, which as you say are
“ essential to the free exercise of that right;" suppose these to be made the law of the land : well, the working classes being by far the most numerous, would return all the members, and so the interests of the upper and middle classes would be unrepresented. The members 80 chosen would proceed to make laws for the supposed benefit of their own class, without any regard to the interests of the other classes, which it cannot be doubted, would cause the greatest confusion and disaster. What we ought always to endeavour to secure, in my opinion, is such a representation as should take care of the interests of all classes.
Robert. Well, there we shall agree. The very thing that I object to is, that according to the present system the representation is all in the hands of the upper and middle classes, and the interests of the working classes are neglected.
William. And therefore to remedy this evil you would have it all placed, as the Charter would place it, in the hands of the working classes. That is jumping out of the frying-pan into the fire. But I wish you would consider well whether the fact really is as you represent it,--that according to the present constituency the interests only of the richer classes are considered, and the rest neglected. My own impression, judging from the proceedings in the Houses of Parliament, is that there is every wish and disposition to attend to the interests of the working classes, as much as any. I think that, generally speaking, the members of both Houses are most anxious to do all they can to improve the condition of the working classes, and that the course of their policy is mainly directed that way. Look to recent enactments. The repeal of the corn-laws, contrary as the landlords supposed it to be to their own interests, was carried, and that with the consent of many of the landlords themselves, for the express purpose of giving the poorer classes cheaper food. The exemption of all persons whose income is under £150 a year from the income-tax, is not that a proof that the interests of the poor are attended to ? Look at the debates on the Ten Hours' Bill, the Health of Towns' Bill. Look at the immense sums voted for