The Age of George III
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I DEDICATE to you a Collection of Letters, writtenby one of yourselves, for the common benefit of us all. They would never have grown to this size without your continued encouragement and applause. To me they originally owe nothing but a healthy sanguine constitution. Under your care they have thriven. To you they are indebted for whatever strength or beauty they possess. When kings and ministers are forgotten, when the force and direction of personal satire is no longer understood, and when measures are only felt in their remotest consequences, this book will, I believe, be found to contain principles worthy to be transmitted to posterity. When you leave the unimpaired hereditary freehold to your children, you do but half your duty. Both liberty and property are precarious, unless the possessors have sense and spirit enough to defend them. This is not the language of vanity. If I am a vain man, my gratification lies within a narrow circle. I am the sole depository of my own secret, and it shall perish with me.
If an honest, and, I may truly affirm, a laborious zeal for the public service, has given me any weight in your esteem, let me exhort and conjure you, never to suffer an invasion of your political constitution, however minute the instance may appear, to pass by, without a determined, persevering resistance. One precedent creates another. They soon accumulate, and constitute law. What yesterday was fact, to-day is doctrine. Examples are supposed to justify the most dangerous measures; and, where they do not suit exactly, the defect is supplied by analogy. Be assured, that the laws which protect us in our civil rights, grow out of the constitution, and they must fall or flourish with it. This is not the cause of faction, or of party, or of any individual, but the common interest of every man in Britain. Although the King should continue to support his present system of government, the period is not very distant, at which you will have the means of redress in your own power. It may be nearer, perhaps, than any of us expect; and I would warn you to be prepared for it. The King may possibly be advised to dissolve the present parliament a year or two before it expires of course, and precipitate a new election, in hopes of taking the nation by surprise. If such a measure be in agitation, this very caution may defeat or prevent it.
I cannot doubt that you will unanimously assert the freedom of election, and vindicate your exclusive right to choose your representatives. But other questions have been started, on which your determination should be equally clear and unanimous. Let it be impressed upon your minds, let it be instilled into your children, that the liberty of the press is the palladium of all the civil, political, and religions rights of an Englishman: and that the right of juries to return a general verdict, in all cases whatsoever, is an essential part of our constitution, not to be controlled or limited by the judges, nor, in any shape, questionable by the legislature. The power of king, lords, and commons, is not an arbitrary power.*
* This positive denial of an arbitrary power being vested in the legislature, is not, in fact, a new doctrine. When the Earl of Lindsay, in the year 1675, brought a bill into the house of lords, "To prevent the dangers which might arise from persons disaffected to the governments" by which an oath and penalty was to be imposed upon the members of both houses, it was affirmed in a protest, signed by twenty-three lay peers (my lords the bishops were not accustomed to protest),'"That the privilege of sitting and voting in parliament, was an honour they had by birth, and a right so inherent in them, and inseparable from them, that nothing could take it away, but what by the law of the land must withal take away their lives, and corrupt their blood."— These noble peers, whose names are a reproach to their posterity, have, in this instance, solemnly denied the power of parliament to alter the constitution. Under a particular proposition, they have asserted a general truth, in which every man in England is concerned.
They are the trustees, not the owners, of the estate. The fee-simple is in us. They cannot alienate, they cannot waste. When we say that the legislature is supreme, we mean, that it is the highest power known to the constitution; that it is the highest in comparison with the other subordinate powers established by the laws. In this sense, the word supreme is relative, not absolute. The power of the legislature is limited, not only by the general rules of natural justice, and the welfare of the community, but by the forms and principles of our particular constitution. If this doctrine be not true, we must admit, that king, lords, and commons have no rule to direct their resolutions, but merely their own will and pleasure. — They might unite the legislative and executive power in the same hands, and dissolve the constitution by an act of parliament. But I am persuaded you will not leave it to the choice of seven hundred persons, notoriously corrupted by the crown, whether seven millions of their equals shall be freemen or slaves? The certainty of forfeiting their own rights, when they sacrifice those of the nation, is no check to a brutal degenerate mind. Without insisting upon the extravagant concession made to Harry the Eighth, there are instances, in the history of other countries, of a formal deliberate surrender of the public liberty into the hands of the sovereign. If England does not share the same fate, it is because we have better resources than in the virtue of either house of parliament.
I said, that the liberty of the press is the palladium of all your rights, and that the right of the juries to return a general verdict is part of your constitution. To preserve the whole system, you must correct your legislature. With regard to any influence of the constituent over the conduct of the representative, there is little diference between a seat in parliament for seven years, and a seat for life. The prospect of your resentment is too remote; and although the last session of a septennial parliament be usually employed in courting the favour of the people, consider that, at this rate, your representatives have six years for offence, and but one for atonement. A death-bed repentance seldom reaches to restitution. If you reflect, that, in the changes of administration, which have marked and disgraced the present reign, although your warmest patriots have, in their turn, been invested with the lawful and unlawful authority of the crown; and though other reliefs or improvements have been held forth to the people, yet, that no one man in office has ever promoted or encouraged a bill for shortening the duration of parliament; but that, whoever was minister, the opposition to this measure, ever since the septennial act passed, has been constant and uniform on the part of government; you cannot but conclude, without the possibility of a doubt, that long parliaments are the foundation of the undue influence of the crown. — This influence answers every purpose of arbitrary power to the crown, with an expence and oppression to the people, which would be unnecessary in an arbitrary government. The best of our ministers find it the easiest and most compendious mode of conducting the King's affairs; and all ministers have a general interest in adhering to a system, which, of itself, is sufficient to support them in office, with out any assistance from personal virtue, popularity, labour, abilities, or experience. It promises every gratification to avarice and ambition, and secures impunity. These are truths unquestionable. If they make no impression, it is because they are too vulgar and notorious. But the inattention or indifference of the nation has continued too long. — You are roused at last to a sense of your danger. The remedy will soon be in your power. If Junius lives, you shall often be reminded of it. If, when the opportunity presents itself, you neglect to do your duty to yourselves and to posterity, to God, and to your country, I shall have one consolation left, in common with the meanest and basest of mankind:— Civil liberty may still last the life of
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