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THE USURPATION OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS IN REGARD
TO SECRECY OF DEBATES.
To the Editors of the New Monthly Magazine.
"On considering maturely the very important right arrogated by the House of Commons, I have no hesitation in asserting, that the claim of secrecy of debate as now made, is a claim not only subversive of their just responsibility, but unfounded in any clearly established law. A little deeper research than has recently been made upon the point, will be worth the pains; and may perhaps justify this broad and unqualified assertion.
"The House, then, claims the right of absolutely excluding the public from all knowledge of its debates, at the discretion of any one member: and it is maintained, and with a high hand too, that even for a member to state those debates to individuals out of the House is a breach of privilege; thereby rendering Parliament at all times a secret assembly, if so it appears good to any one of its members. And this, I say, is not borne out by true constitutional principles, nor by sound Parliamentary learning. I go a step farther; and shall attempt to prove, that not only is this extreme claim a manifest usurpation, but that, generally speaking, the people are entitled to access to the votes and proceedings; and at the present day to be present at the debates when not specially excluded by solemn vote, only fit to be given on particular occasions for the public good.
"An early enumeration of the privileges of Parliament is to be found in a book, attributed to a very learned person, Mr. Justice Doddridge, entitled 'The several Opinions of sundry learned antiquaries touching the Parliament of England.' In this book these privileges are stated to be lawful summons, free election, liberty of admission into the House, a quiet session there, with a just freedom of speech, and debate, without fear or disturbance.' Sir Edward Coke, a contemporary of Doddridge, and no careless vindicator of the privileges of the House of Commons, does not include that of not-reporting' amongst them (4 Institute, p. 8.); and in all the cases in which the subject was discussed before the reign of Charles the First, misrepresentation, or the like improper way of noticing the debates, were the clear grounds of animadversion on the offending parties. This will be apparent upon a careful examination of the cases of Hall, a member, in 23 Elizabeth, (Sir Simon D'Ewes' Journal, p. 291; Commons' Journals, vol. i. p. 122-125;) and the Bishop of Bristol's case, in 1604, (1 Hatsell, 233; and the Commons' Journals, vol. i. p. 226, &c. 251, and 1000.)
"In 1588, indeed, the members were admonished that speeches should not be made table-talk, nor given in notes in writing to any not members of the House.' But this admonition' was given by consent of the House; (Observations collected out of divers Journals, 1717, p. 44,) and the practice was ever otherwise, as is proved by the existence of such documents as the Preface to the Ephemeris Parliamentaria,' D'Ewes' Journal, Hakewill's and other early collections. It is not in modern times that the people of England have first learned that they are entitled to control the House of Commons; and that in order to control men, their conduct must be known. The year 1588 was also a period of great national danger from a foreign enemy, who possibly had domestic favourers in the heart of England, against whom unusual secrecy was mere prudence. But the general rule of suitable publicity may be inferred farther from the fact, that even Henry the Eighth directed the members of the House of Commons to report in their counties what they had seen and heard ; that is to say, the King urged them not surely to commit in every town a breach of privilege, but to discharge their duty to the public, who would thus be enabled to comprehend what the general good might require; and whether the
trusts reposed in the members had been duly performed. Thus alone, to go still farther into antiquity, could the excellent declaration of Edward the First be fulfilled, that what concerns all, should be deliberated upon by all. Seal up the House of Commons hermetically, as Mr. Perceval would do, and these truly fundamental principles must be abandoned.
"The position, that the proceedings of Parliament are not intended in law to be secret proceedings, is illustrated by another rule-namely, that the votes are notice to all men; in support of which rule, it is to be presumed in law, that no Parliament will close its proceedings against those who are bound by them. The law, in short, has invested Parliament with the power of occasional secrecy, trusting to its discretion that such power shall be exercised wisely and justly.
"The modern doctrine was first acted upon at the Restoration. It was in 1662, perhaps for the first time, that strangers were ordered to withdraw (2 Hatsell, 171). Before the reign of Charles the First, privilege was needed to protect the Members from Kings; but the people were part of themselves, and not at all times shut out from a knowledge of what there was no danger of their disturbing, when properly imparted to them. The exclusion of the people seems to have grown up in later times, when new interests arose in Parliament adverse to the public interests, and which dared not face the light.
"The Restoration of Charles the Second took place under circumstances which forbid surprise that popular control over either King or Parliament should have been prevented as much as possible. Accordingly, it is then for the first time that not reporting' seems to be mentioned as of the essence of Parliament. Numerous cases, however, even after that, turned solely upon the misrepresentations of reporters, rather than upon simply reporting debates; and Blackstone, in the Commentaries, stands upon the older and better law of Sir Edward Coke and Doddridge, omitting this new privilege of 'not reporting' in his enumeration of Parliamentary rights.
"Upon the whole, it may be safely concluded that the sound rule of the Constitution is that of common sense-namely, that the exclusion of the public from the debates is to be a rare case, depending upon the wisdom of Parliament in unforeseen emergencies, but certainly not upon individual caprice or the discretion of single men; and that, although printing was unknown in the beginning of Parliaments, and its use scarcely familiar in this way till of late years, yet that it is only a convenient modification of the original power, well established, and generally allowed to the old narrators of what they had heard in debate-what they might repeat we may print. The usage of modern times must be annexed to ancient right; and the usurpation of yesterday, which would abridge that ancient right, will be succeeded by a practice susceptible of proper correction dictated by just experience. The duty incumbent on Members, even in such a reign as that of Henry the Eighth, of reporting to the counties what they had seen and heard,' will now be best discharged by encouraging a better instrument for distributing intelligence-the newspapers; and independently of free scope being given to the public press on this head, Parliament should have its own short-hand writers, in order to protect the public from the evil of perishing, or of partial record.
"I am, Gentlemen, &c.
Sir Orlando Bridgeman's Judgments in the Common Pleas, 334.
The Rail-road Newspaper-The threatened Revolution-Candour and Credit-Parliament Newspapers-The Smuggler: Yankee Criticism-Signs of the Times-Old Maids Mrs. Comfort and the Duke of Wellington-Dealers in Poison-Foreign Drama in London.
THE RAIL-ROAD NEWSPAPER.-The active Americans are shooting rail-roads all through the States like veins. They will soon be really United. Communication, rapid, safe, and easy, is the surest promoter, not only of civilization and luxury, but of freedom and knowledge. A weekly newspaper has been established at New York, called "The Rail-road Journal," which especially devotes itself to intelligence concerning rail-roads, and the projects designed or in execution; combining with it the miscellaneous and literary contents of ordinary journals. The Editor, in his third number, amusingly defends the title he has chosen in a manner indicative of the interest taken in such matters by our busy and speculative brethren :
"The Rail-road Journal!' Phoebus! what a name! I should as soon think,' cried a gentleman in our hearing, of a Patent-Furnace or Cooking-Stove Journal! A newspaper devoted to rail-roads? You might as well have an "Aqueduct Chronicle," or a "Turnpike Coinmentator," as a Rail-road Journal!' -Certainly,' echoes another; and "The Steam-boat Egis," or "The Steambath Locomotive," or "The Steam-scouring Visiter," would be a far more attractive title!' So they might! so they might! gentlemen; and you may add, that The Automaton Working-man' would be a more engaging title still to those who sit with their arms folded quietly at home, and when the whole world is awake and bustling about them, not only put their hands to no work of enterprise, but close their ears to the din of business, and shut out all sounds that would remind them of strenuous exertion. But, happily for the success of our undertaking, in this country there are but few such."
The absence of the stamp duty in the U. S. enables the person who possesses or disseminates knowledge of any kind, instantly to scatter it wherever the soil is prepared for the seed.
THE THREATENED REVOLUTION.-We were said lately to be in the very jaws of a revolution: if so, the monster has not such sharp teeth as has been said; for he has let us down without breaking the skin, much less a bone. The truth is, that a revolution, like other bugbears, is a more dreadful thing at a distance than close at hand: we are always in a slow revolution, and it only requires the pulse of events to beat a little quicker to bring on the real political fever. Testimonies of various kinds might be quoted, to show that people, at the time, seldom know that they are actually in a revolution: that it is only on looking back that they discover the greatness or the importance of the event. Even so shrewd a politician and philosopher as Dumont was not aware, in the very heart of the French Revolution, of the nature of the changes taking place. He declares that he would have put down memoranda of every thing going on under his eyes, if he had had an idea that the times possessed the extraordinary character which has signalized them for ever. To be in the heart of great national movements, is like watching the hour-hand of a clock-it moves, but we cannot perceive the motion. While the eye is upon the pointer it seems still, but on recurring to it a few hours after, we
perceive the immense strides that have been made. A decree that silently changes the whole condition of a people sounds like the vulgarest proclamation. On looking back, the period seems crowded with important and striking events: it seems as if persons must have felt in a tornado-no such thing, it is an eddy here and there; the stream of occupation proceeds noiselessly. Besides, the events on which almost every thing afterwards appears to turn, are very frequently in themselves on the spot, and to the actors themselves, nearly insignificant. There are two modes of looking on an event— as it was performed, and in its consequences. Now the former is the general habit of the eye-witness, and rarely the latter; unless indeed there happens to be blood spilt, and then accidents and consequences are all exaggerated grossly. When ordinary persons look back at the French Revolution, all they turn their memories upon are the execution of Louis and the massacres of September; the least essential points of the epoch, and which, had they been avoided, as they might easily, events would have run pretty nearly the same course. Less prejudice would have been created, and that is all. When men cry out about revolutions, they rarely know what they mean: many revolutions, of the most essential kind, occur without a king's removing from a palace in one country to a palace in another.
CANDOUR AND CREDIT. The following is an advertisement in an American Savannah newspaper. In that country, where the absence of a duty places no restriction on the genius of the advertiser, men's humours are curiously shown, in columns here dedicated to the matter-of-fact or matter-of-fiction announcements of tradesmen :—
"All persons are hereby not only warned, but absolutely forbid, to give me credit on any pretence whatsoever; as from this day forward I shall not pay any debt contracted by myself, so help me God! (Signed) JOHN HEWETT."
It is not unusual in this country for men thus to denounce their better halves, but a novelty of this kind was reserved for the new world. Here is a man candid enough to declare that he is unworthy to be trusted, showing that he cannot even trust himself. This is an abnegation of one of the rights of character for the sake of preserving the rest. Fair notice is given-I am a warm-hearted, imprudent fellow, and constantly do foolish things in the heat of the moment, if I am permitted, for which I am made to suffer deeply afterwards. I want self-government, therefore let me deprive myself of the opportunity of doing wrong. Advertisements of this kind would make a curious department in the Gazette, under the head of persons "who will not be trusted," or "declarations of Insolubility."
It would certainly be greatly for the advantage of society if the candour exhibited above were more common; there are many persons, like honest nobody-paying John Hewett, who have made a firm determination to pay no debts contracted by themselves (so help them God!) but who, so far from taking this upright course of advertisement, keep their intentions a profound secret-nay, show by all possible outward signs that it is not only their resolution to pay, but that they propose to pay well; and, in fact, are often heard, like the dandy who called for a glass of water and a tooth-pick, to “damn the expense."
PARLIAMENT NEWSPAPERS. One of the consequences of the repeal of the tax upon political news will be, as has been before observed, a division of labour in Journalism. Every branch of knowledge, and most interests, will have their peculiar organ. At present, a newspaper is not an accredited publication, and a legislator disdains to be thought connected with one. Nevertheless it is probable that one of the earliest efforts of the repeal of the tax will be a convenient and popular mode of communication between Members and constituents, by means of a Journal. Mirabeau used to give his electors a report of all that passed in the National Assembly in his Journal, the Provençal Letter, and it served as the vehicle of essays and other papers. What more natural or more convenient than that the Member for Glasgow or Manchester should instruct his constituents, through the instrumentality of a small newspaper, of all the topics which especially relate to their interests. What an admirable vehicle for instruction of every kind-what a guide, what a tutor on all subjects connected with legislation, education, commerce, and other important branches of political science, would such a Journal prove, if conducted, we will suppose, by such men as Huskisson or Brougham. Would not the weekly letter or budget of such men be looked for with eagerness and delight? How much more good such means would have enabled them to do-how many errors they might have exploded-how many right principles established-and what a convenient form for explaining parliamentary conduct. The example of such men, taking with them the aid of a secretary, and thus, as it were, opening a school like an ancient professor, would be powerful. Other men would follow in their track, with unequal step, but they would each be useful from the local aptitude of their communication, and the practice itself would beget a supply of publicists in a short time. Newspapers, as at present conducted, deserve considerable praise; but such is the multitude of their objects, and their greater or less subserviency to the necessity of courting a circulation, that their usefulness is limited, and their authority contracted. The advantages of this scheme open up on every side as we consider the plan. A consideration of them methodically would be out of place here. Let only the idea be borne in mind when the Reform Bill is passed and the knowledge tax repealed—as repealed it must be.
THE SMUGGLER-YANKEE CRITICISM.-The following is a sentence from a piece of New York criticism:
"The Author's sceues and characters are most of them out of the beaten track of Fiction, and his own reflections upon them, relish of a mind that has not been emasculated by devoting its powers to illustrating the vapidity of Almack's and Regent's Park."
Fault need not be found with the justness of the opinion. Mr. Banim's style is certainly not emasculated by any practice whatever; much less by the vapidity of the Regent's Park. This description of illustration is very dangerous. What is meant by the vapidity of a ball-room is readily understood; but what can our brother Jonathan have heard of the Regent's Park, that he should accuse it of vapidity? We do not believe that a circulation in the Regent's Park would do any mischief to anybody, or that if Mr. Banim had lodged in Cornwall Terrace for a century, he would in that atmosphere have run any