The Age of George III

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The Letters of Junius

Letter XXXIX: To the Printer of the Public Advertiser: 28 May 1770

[152] SIR

WHILE parliament was sitting, it would neither have been safe, nor perhaps, quite regular, to offer any opinion to the public upon the justice or wisdom of their proceedings. To pronounce fairly upon their conduct, it was necessary to wait until we could consider, in one view, the beginning, progress, and conclusion of their deliberations. The cause of the public was undertaken and supported by men, whose abilities and united authority, to say nothing of the advantageous ground they stood on, might well be thought sufficient to determine a popular question in favour of the people. Neither was the house of commons so absolutely engaged in defence of the ministry, or even of their own resolutions, but that they might have paid some decent regard to the known disposition of their constituents; and without any dishonour to their firmness, might have retracted an opinion too hastily adopted, when they saw the alarm it had created, and how strongly it was opposed by the general sense of the nation. The ministry, too, would have consulted their own immediate interest in making some concession satisfactory to the moderate part of the people. Without touching the fact, they might have consented to guard against, or give up, the dangerous principle on which it was established. In this state of things, I think it was highly improbable, at the beginning of the session, that the complaints of the people upon a matter, which in their apprehension at least, immediately affected the life of the constitution, would be treated with as much contempt by their own representatives, and by the house of lords, as they had been by the other branch of the legislature. Despairing of their integrity, we had a right to expect something from their prudence, and something from their fears. The Duke of GraftonDuke of Grafton certainly did not foresee to what an extent the corruption of a parliament might be carried. He thought, perhaps, that there was still some portion of shame or virtue left in the majority [153] of the house of commons, or that there was a line in public prostitution beyond which they would scruple to proceed. Had the young man been a little more practised in the world, or had he ventured to measure the characters of other men by his own, he would not have been so easily discouraged.

The prorogation of parliament naturally calls upon us to review their proceedings, and to consider the condition in which they have left the kingdom. I do not question but they have done what is usually called the king's business, much to his majesty's satisfaction: we have only to lament, that, in consequence of a system introduced or revived in the present reign, this kind of merit should be very consistent with the neglect of every duty they owe to the nation. The interval between the opening of the last, and close of the former session, was longer than usual. Whatever were the views of the minister in deferring the meeting of parliament, sufficient time was certainly given to every member of the house of commons, to look back upon the steps he had taken, and the consequences they had produced. The zeal of party, the violence of personal animosities, and the heat of contention, had leisure to subside. From that period, whatever resolution they took was deliberate and prepense. In the preceding session, the dependents of the ministry had affected to believe, that the final determination of the question would have satisfied the nation or at least put a stop to their complaints; as if the certainty of an evil could diminish the sense of it, or the nature of injustice could be altered by decision. But they found the people of England were in a temper very distant from submission; and although it was contended that the house of commons could not themselves reverse a resolution which had the force and effect of a judicial sentence, there were other constitutional expedients which would have given a security against any similar attempts for the future. The general proposition, in which the whole country had an interest, might have been reduced to a particular fact, in which Mr. Wilkes and Mr. Luttrell would alone have been concerned. The house of lords might interpose; the king might dissolve the parliament; or if every other resource failed, there still lay a grand constitutional writ of error, in behalf of the people, from the decision of one [154] court to the wisdom of the whole legislature. Every one of these remedies has been successively attempted. The people performed their part with dignity, spirit, and perseverance. For many months his majesty heard nothing from his people but the language of complaint and resentment: unhappily for this country, it was the daily triumph of his courtiers, that he heard it with an indifference approaching contempt.

The house of commons, having assumed a power unknown to the constitution, were determined not merely to support it in the single instance in question, but to maintain the doctrine in its utmost extent, and to establish the fact as a precedent in law, to be applied in whatever manner his majesty's servants should hereafter think fit. Their proceedings upon this occasion are a strong proof that a decision, in the first instance illegal and unjust, can only be supported by a continuation of falsehood and injustice. To support their former resolutions, they were obliged to violate some of the best known and established rules of the house. In one instance, they went so far as to declare, in open defiance of truth and common sense, that it was not the rule of the house to divide a complicated question at the request of a member.* But, after trampling upon the laws of the land, it was not wonderful that they should treat the private regulations of their own assembly with equal disregard. The speaker, being young in office, began with pretended ignorance, and ended with deciding for the ministry. We are not surprised at the decision; but he hesitated and blushed at his own baseness, and every man was astonished.†

The interest of the public was vigorously supported in the house of lords. The right to defend the constitution against an encroachment of the other estates, and the necessity of exerting it at this period, was urged to them

* The extravagant resolution appears in the vote of the house, but, in the minutes of the committees, the instances of resolutions contrary to law and truth, or of refusals to acknowledge law and truth when proposed to them, are innumerable.
† When the king first made it a measure of his government to destroy Mr. Wilkes, and when, for this purpose, it was necessary to run down privilege, Sir Fletcher Norton, with his usual prostituted effrontery, assured the house of commons, that he should regard one of their votes no more than a resolution of so many drunken porters. This is the very lawyer whom Ben Jonson describes in the following lines:

Gives forked counsel; takes provoking gold
On either hand, and puts it up.
So wise, so grave, of so perplex'd a tongue,
And loud withal, that would not wag, nor scarce
Lie still, without a fee.

[155] with every argument that could be supposed to influence the heart or the understanding. But it soon appeared that they had already taken their part, and were determined to support the house of commons, not only at the expense of truth and decency, but even by a surrender of their own most important rights. Instead of performing that duty which the constitution expected from them, in return for the dignity and independence of their station, in return for the hereditary share it has given them in the legislature, the majority of them made common cause with the other house in opposing the people, and established another doctrine as false in itself, and, if possible, more pernicious to the constitution, than that on which the Middlesex election was determined. By resolving, "that they had no right to impeach a judgment of the house of commons, in any case whatsoever, where that house has a competent jurisdiction," they, in effect, gave up that constitutional check and reciprocal control of one branch of the legislature over the other, which is, perhaps, the greatest and most important object provided for by the division of the whole legislative power into three estates: and now let the judicial decisions of the house of commons be ever so extravagant, let their declarations of the law be ever so flagrantly false, arbitrary, and oppressive to the subject, the house of lords have imposed a slavish silence upon themselves; they cannot interpose; they cannot protect the subject; they cannot defend the laws of their country. A concession so extraordinary in itself, so contradictory to the principles of their own institution, cannot but alarm the most unsuspecting mind. We may well conclude that the lords would hardly have yielded so much to the other house without the certainty of a compensation, which can only be made to them at the expense of the people.* The arbitrary power they have

* The man, who resists and overcomes this iniquitous power, assumed by the lords, must be supported by the whole people. We have the laws on our side, and want nothing but an intrepid leader. When such a man stands forth, let the nation look to it. It is not his cause, but our own.

[156] assumed, of imposing fines, and committing during pleasure, will now be exercised in its full extent. The house of commons are too much in their debt to question or interrupt their proceedings. The crown too, we may be well assured, will lose nothing in this new distribution of power. After declaring, that, to petition for a dissolution of parliament is irreconcilable with the principles of the constitution, his majesty has reason to expect that some extraordinary compliment will be returned to the royal prerogative. The three branches of the legislature seem to treat their separate rights and interests as the Roman triumvirs did their friends; they reciprocally sacrifice them to the animosities of each other; and establish a detestable union among themselves, upon the ruin of the laws and liberty of the commonwealth. Through the whole proceedings of the house of commons, in this session, there is an apparent, a palpable consciousness of guilt, which has prevented their daring to assert their own dignity, where it has been immediately and grossly attacked. In the course of Dr. Musgrave's examination, he said every thing that can be conceived mortifying to individuals, or offensive to the house. They voted his information frivolous: but they were awed by his firmness and integrity, and sunk under it.* The terms in which the sale of a patent to Mr. Hine were communicated to the public, naturally called for a parliamentary inquiry. The integrity of the house of commons was directly impeached: but they had not courage to move in their own vindication, because the inquiry would have been fatal to colonel Burgoyne and the Duke of Graftonduke of Grafton. When Sir George Savile branded them with the name of traitors to their constituents, when the lord mayor, the sheriffs, and Mr. Trecothick expressly avowed and maintained every part of the city remonstrance, why did they tamely submit to be insulted? Why did they not immediately expel those refractory members? Conscious of the

* The examination of this firm, honest man, is printed for Almon. The reader will find it a most curious and most interesting tract. Doctor Musgrave, with no other support but truth and its own firmness, resisted and overcame the whole house of commons.

[157] motives on which they had acted, they prudently preferred infamy to danger, and were better prepared to meet the contempt, than to rouse the indignation of the whole people. Had they expelled those five members, the consequences of the new doctrine of incapacitation would have come immediately home to every man. The truth of it would then have been fairly tried, without any reference to Mr. Wilkes's private character, or the dignity of the house, or the obstinacy of one particular county.

These topics, I know, have had their weight with men, who, affecting a character of moderation, in reality consult nothing but their own immediate ease; who are weak enough to acquiesce under a flagrant violation of the laws when it does not directly touch themselves; and care not what injustice is practised upon a man whose moral character they piously think themselves obliged to condemn. In any other circumstances, the house of commons must have forfeited all credit and dignity, if, after such gross provocation, they had permitted those five gentlemen to sit any longer among them. We should then have seen and felt the operation of a precedent, which is represented to be perfectly barren and harmless. But there is a set of men in this country, whose understandings measure the violation of law by the magnitude of the instance, not by the important consequences which flow directly from the principle; and the minister, I presume, did not think it safe to quicken their apprehensions too soon. Had Mr. Hampden reasoned and acted like the moderate men of these days, instead of hazarding his whole fortune in a lawsuit with the crown, he would have quietly paid the twenty shillings demanded of him; the Stuart family would probably have continued upon the throne; and at this moment the imposition of ship-money would have been an acknowledged prerogative of the crown.

What then has been the business of the session, after voting the supplies, and confirming the determination of the Middlesex election? The extraordinary prorogation of the Irish parliament, and the just discontents of that kingdom, have been passed by without notice. Neither the general situation of our colonies, nor that particular distress which forced the inhabitants of Boston to take up arms in their defence, have been thought worthy of a [158] moment's consideration. In the repeal of those acts which were most offensive to America, the parliament have done every thing but remove the offence. They have relinquished the revenue, but judiciously taken care to preserve the contention. It is not pretended that the continuation of the tea-duty is to produce any direct benefit whatsoever to the mother country. What is it then, but an odious, unprofitable exertion of a speculative right, and fixing a badge of slavery upon the Americans, without service to their masters? But it has pleased God to give us a ministry and a parliament, who are neither to be persuaded by argument, nor instructed by experience.

Lord North, I presume, will not claim an extraordinary merit from any thing he has done this year, in the improvement or application of the revenue. A great operation, directed to an important object, though it should fail of success, marks the genius, and elevates the character of a minister. A poor contracted understanding deals in little schemes, which dishonour him if they fail, and do him no credit when they succeed. Lord North had fortunately the means in his possession of reducing all the four per cents. at once. The failure of his first enterprise in finance is not half so disgraceful to his reputation as a minister, as the enterprise itself is injurious to the public. Instead of striking one decisive blow, which would have cleared the market at once, upon terms proportioned to the price of the four per cents. six weeks ago, he has tampered with a pitiful portion of a commodity which ought never to have been touched but in gross. He has given notice to the holders of that stock, of a design formed by government to prevail upon them to surrender it by degrees, consequently has warned them to hold up and enhance the price: so that the plan of reducing the four per cents. must either be dropped entirely, or continue with an increasing disadvantage to the public. The minister's sagacity has served to raise the value of the thing he means to purchase, and to sink that of the three per cents. which it is his purpose to sell. In effect, he has contrived to make it the interest of the proprietor of the four per cents. to sell out, and buy three per cents, in the market, rather than subscribe his stock upon any terms that can possibly be offered by government.

The state of the nation leads us naturally to consider [159] the situation of the king. The prorogation of parliament has the effect of a temporary dissolution. The odium of measures adopted by the collective body sits lightly upon the separate members who composed it. They retire into summer quarters, and rest from the disgraceful labours of the campaign. But as for the sovereign, it is not so with him: he has a permanent existence in this country; he cannot withdraw himself from the complaints, the discontents, the reproaches of his subjects. They pursue him to his retirement, and invade his domestic happiness, when no address can be obtained from an obsequious parliament to encourage or console him. In other times, the interest of the king and the people of England was, as it ought to be, entirely the same. A new system has not only been adopted in fact, but professed upon principle. Ministers are no longer the public servants of the state, but the private domestics of the sovereign. One* particular class of men are permitted to call themselves the king's friends, as if the body of the people were the king's enemies; or, as if his majesty looked for a resource or consolation in the attachment of a few favourites; against the general contempt and detestation of his subjects. Edward and Richard the Second made the same distinction between the collective body of the people, and a contemptible party, who surrounded the throne. The event of their mistaken conduct might have been a warning to their successors. Yet the errors of those princes were not without excuse. They had as many false friends as our present gracious sovereign, and infinitely greater temptations to seduce them. They were neither sober, religious, nor demure. Intoxicated with pleasure, they wasted their inheritance in pursuit of it. Their lives were like a rapid torrent, brilliant in prospect, though useless or dangerous in its course. In the dull unanimated existence of other princes, we see nothing but a sickly stagnant water, which taints the atmosphere without fertilizing the soil. The morality of a king is not to be measured by vulgar rules. His situation is singular: there are faults which

* "An ignorant, mercenary, and servile crew; unanimous in evil, diligent in mischief, variable in principles, constant to flattery, talkers for liberty, but slaves to power: styling themselves the court party, and the prince's only friends." Davenant.

[160] do him honour, and virtues that disgrace him. A faultless, insipid equality in his character, is neither capable of virtue or vice in the extreme; but it secures his submission to those persons whom he has been accustomed to respect, and makes him a dangerous instrument of their ambition. Secluded from the world, attached from his infancy to one set of persons and one set of ideas, he can neither open his heart to new connexions, nor his mind to better information. A character of this sort is the soil fittest to produce that obstinate bigotry in politics and religion, which begins with a meritorious sacrifice of the understanding, and finally conducts the monarch and the martyr to the block. At any other period, I doubt not, the scandalous disorders which have been introduced into the government of all the dependencies in the empire, would have roused the attention of the public. The odious abuse and prostitution of the prerogative at home; the unconstitutional employment of the military; the arbitrary fines and commitments by the house of lords and court of king's bench; the mercy of a chaste and pious prince extended cheerfully to a wilful murderer, because that murderer is the brother of a common prostitute;* would, I think, at any other time, have excited universal indignation. But the daring attack upon the constitution, in the Middlesex election, makes us callous and indifferent to inferior grievances. No man regards an eruption upon the surface, when the noble parts are invaded, and he feels a mortification approaching to his heart. The free election of our representatives in parliament comprehends, because it is, the source and security of every right and privilege of the English nation. The ministry have realized the compendious ideas of Caligula. They know that the liberty, the laws, and property of an Englishman, have, in truth, but one neck, and that, to violate the freedom of election, strikes deeply at them all.


* Miss Kennedy.

Polly KennedyPolly Kennedy (alias Jones) was a celebrated high-class prostitute and mistress of Sir Charles Bunbury. She died in 1781.

Reynolds's portrait was painted during a traumatic period in Kennedy's life, when her two brothers were on trial for murder. She used her influence to get their sentences commuted from death to transportation - to the disgust of some commentators, indignant that mercy should be extended to 'the brother of a common prostitute.'

Frank McLynn, Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth-Century England (1989)

The murder of law officers was long recognized as being in the same category as murder to promote another crime. As recently as 1957 in England the two offences were bracketed together as `capital murder' for which the death penalty was thought justifiable. It might be thought that to kill a peace-keeping official was in itself a mandatory death sentence. But, as with everything else in the eighteenth century, this depended on other circumstances being equal. If you had powerful friends and backers, the majesty of the law went into abeyance. In 1770 two Irish brothers called Kennedy killed a watchman on Westminster Bridge after a drunken brawl. They were tried for murder and found guilty but then pardoned, through the influence of their demi-mondaine sister Polly, whose lovers included powerful figures in the elite.

John Wilkes and his followers took up the case as a grotesque miscarriage of justice: 'The mercy of a chaste and pious prince extended cheerfully to a common murderer, because that murderer is the brother of a common prostitute.' How, asked the Wilkites, could rioting weavers be executed for loom cutting, while the Kennedys, convicted murderers, walked free? Yet Wilkes and his movement ran into an aristocratic brick wall. Their best efforts were unable to contrive a legal appeal to reverse the pardon.

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