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Delivered in the Manchester Athenæum, on Easter-Eve, 1863; ABEL
HEYWOOD, Esq., Mayor of Manchester, in the Chair.
REVISED AND EXTENDED.
WHILE I earnestly desire the elevation of the working
classes, I do not intend to echo that which they are accustomed to hear. I told my friends who have kindly made arrangements for this lecture, that I should say things which, however friendly, would be new, and at first perhaps unacceptable. If an apology is needed for my having conceived the desire of addressing you, it may be found in the fact that I lived six years in Manchester, from 1840 to 1846, and have never ceased to sympathise with the working classes. But there is a much stronger point. Of late, while grieving over the disgrace brought upon England by the sympathy of the aristocracy and gentry with the wicked Slave Power, I have rejoiced at the very opposite spirit and conduct of the artizans, and eminently of the men of Manchester. Their address to President Lincoln, on the last day of last year, did them the highest honour ; especially since in the first instance it was the blockade by the North which stopped the supply of cotton. I regard the working men as having to a certain extent redressed the dishonour of England, and as having begun a reconciliation very much needed between this country and the United States. But the matter does not stop here. The gentry have shown a deceivableness, an excitability, and a jealousy of our
kinsmen, very alarming to the future of England ; and if it were requisite or possible for one class to guide the Foreign affairs of England (which are now by far the most important element of our policy); I, for my part, would rather have the chief power in the hands of the intelligent working men, at present, than in those of any other elass. I therefore claim, not to be counted among your ill-wishers and opponents, if I cannot be your partizan, pure and simple.
The affairs of America and of Poland of late so fill the imagination, that it may be hard to gain attention to a subject which is not at this moment moving in Parliament. Yet it is only during such a lull of home politics, that I can ask a reconsideration of fundamental principles. When a practical measure has been proposed and is pending, one may frankly oppose it, or support it as it is, or support it with slight amendment, leaving its principle unchanged : but a man seems to be treacherous, and a marplot, who, in the midst of action, suggests fundamental changes of aim. The topic of Reform must and will come up again ; because both a Tory ministry and a Whig ministry have put into the Queen's mouth a speech on the subject, and when expectation has been thus raised in a large part of the nation, a debt is incurred which cannot be cancelled at will. I am sometimes asked, whether the unenfranchised classes have any peculiar class-grievances, which justify them in demanding admission to the franchise. That there are, or are not, class-grievances, I do not take on myself to say, further than this, that all misgovernment falls with chief weight on the weakest part of society, and is virtually a special grievance to the lowest class ; on the same principle, as that in’every machine the strain always is felt worst at the weakest point. The rich and strong can bear what crushes the weak. In fact, even taxation, when placed directly on the rich, is apt to shift itself on to the poor,
many out of employ. Whether this would be remedied by a mere extension of the franchise, is a separate question : but I cannot go along with the self-satisfied praises of our institutions, which I hear from the prosperous.
“Our political system is illogical, but it works well," was, I am told, the saying of the late Lord Melbourne ; and the sentiment is re-echoed by the prosperous. Do not expect me to say that the government of France, Spain, Russia, Austria, or Tur
key, is so good for the working man as that of England. If we compare England with despotic countries, we may perhaps get a cheap triumph for our constitution; though some despotisms crush only the educated classes, and spare the ignorant. But the words well and ill are relative. If what exists is less good than it might be, it is not good, but evil. Now the fact is, that the most applauded legislation of the last thirty years, has been the rescinding of Acts of Parliament which ought never to have been passed ;- - which were protested against as evil at the time, and were only repealed after they had done enormous mischief. Of course a pre-eminent example is the late Corn Laws. To abolish those pernicious laws which bore with their whole weight ultimately upon the poor, needed not only seven years' exertion, but the erection of a vast voluntary league, unknown to the Constitution, and the formation of a national party devoted to this one object. I think such a phenomenon, even if it stood alone, instead of being a giant among fifty brothers, ought to lessen the self-satisfaction with which most prosperous Englishmen extol our centralised Parliament and our legislative Executive. In my firm belief, many great and deep reforms in our institutions are needed, --reforms of principle, and not merely of detail,if justice is to be done to the working men of England,-if they are to be kept at home, and not to be forced to expatriate themselves, and if England is not to fall more and more behind the United States. I avow, then, that I am not for stagnation, under the fine title of Conservatism, but for judicious re-construction.
This Re-construction or Reform has for 30 or 35 years been contemplated singly or chiefly under one form ;under what is called “ Extension of the Franchise.” In my belief this is a false trail to lead astray, and a most narrow view of a large subject. To limit the word “ Franchise” to the act of voting for a member of Parliament, perhaps only once in seven years, has been the source of very mischievous fallacies. Allow me to illustrate this by my own case. I am in enjoyment of numerous valuable privileges as a citizen of Great Britain and liege of Queen Victoria. My person and my property are protected not only against all other violence, but against the Queen and her servants. I am free to speak against them and their doings, and to aid publicly in thwarting them. I may join a league to get a law repealed, and may petition with ten thousand in company against any imagined grievances. I am free from conscription for the army, and from all taxation but that which is imposed by a public and general enactment. Against accusation of illegality I have the protection of a jury: The very many advantages which I enjoy as a British citizen, are collectively my franchise or freedom; and one of these is the right or duty to vote on certain occasions. I wish you to consider what is the relative value of the last to me.
I have been a householder near 28 years, and all that time have had the Parliamentary franchise, in theory ; but in fact, I cannot remember that I have had to vote more than three times, and certainly on no occasion have I been able to give a vote with any zeal. When two candidates, and only two, propose themselves, and you do not care much for either, or possibly have only to inquire which of the two you less disapprove, you cannot greatly value the privilege of giving one vote out of 8,000 or out of 20,000 for one of the two men. If I care for my vote, it is on the assumption that it may lead to something better in legislation, or in public policy, or in the enforcement of law. But I never have been able to have the faintest hope that any of my three votes could have appreciable effect. That there should be a Parliament, and many tens of thousands to elect it, I see to be good for the country at large, and for me as one of the country; but whether I in particular should vote, has by no possibility been to me a matter of personal interest. You therefore cannot take it ill of me, if I have no greater zeal for your possessing the right of voting, than I have in my own case. I will add, that, from one cause or other, I have from time to time written or spoken on some political topics, as at this moment. I cannot flatter myself that any of my words have been of much practical avail ; but if they have not, much less have my three votes. Nay, it is still within the bounds of possibility that words spoken or written may have sunk into men's hearts, and may fructify into public utility next year or ten years hence, or may bless our children after we are dead : but our past votes are generally dead and gone for ever; perhaps also were given to defeated candidates. Do I not then reasonably value my right of public speech and free press far more than my right of voting? A man who has a strong political opinion, and is free to
utter it, has always a chance of affecting public action by addressing his fellow citizens, whether he have personally a vote or not; but his vote in itself is comparatively a contemptible influence. I therefore think it delusive to say that a man is without THE FRANCHISE because he is without a vote, as though the individual vote were the great matter of importance. And with this is coupled another fallacy concerning the Ballot, which is extolled for enabling a man to enjoy a voting power, which measures perhaps one five-thousandth part of a member of Parliament, while shutting his lips on political questions. One who does not dare to speak, and cannot exercise the real and fruitful power of persuasion, is not in my opinión made a freeman by voting in secret. If any one is socially so in trammels, that to speak his mind would involve him in painful losses, I do not claim of him a sacrifice; let him remain silent. But freedom was never benefited by men who dare not speak. Such a man, if he have a definite and strong conviction, declines the social duty of imparting his convictions, and of urging his fellow-citizens to that course which he discerns to be right. While (for private reasons of his own, which I will not censure) he sacrifices the essence of Franchise, I hold it ridiculous to call his vote a Franchise, to expect public good from it, or to feel earnest desire that he
may retain his voting power. Were I myself so situated, my immediate wish and effort would be to have no vote. However, what I say about the ballot is a digression, to illustrate how much more I personally value freedom of utterance and persuasion than the possession of a vote which is given once in five or seven years. Speech is a thing of every day, and is influential in proportion to a man's knowledge, talents, and earnestness. In the vote all are equalised ; the wise and the energetic are swamped by the ignorant and reckless ;-a result which is more and more certain, in proportion as the voters are isolated, and the voting secret.
It is an astonishing delusion to suppose that general voting can in itself tend to any good results. We do not wish laws to contain the ignorance and bigotry of the country, but its most enlightened sentiment. Public, orderly deliberation is needed to refute error, to communicate knowledge, and to shame selfishness, before the vote is taken. The good or bad result depends immensely more