A Field Night in the House of Commons
To an intelligent American visiting London for the first time, few places of interest will present stronger attractions than the House of Commons during an animated debate. Commencing its existence with the first crude ideas of popular liberty in England, steadily advancing in influence and importance with the increasing wealth and intelligence of the middling class, until it came to hold the purse and successfully defend the rights of the people, illustrated for many generations by the eloquence and the statesmanship of the kingdom, and to-day wielding the power and directing the destinies of the foremost nation in the world, it is not strange that an American, speaking the same language, and proud of the same ancestry, should visit with the deepest interest the scene of so many and so important transactions. Especially will this be the case, if by experience or observation he has become familiar with the course of proceedings in our own legislative assemblies. For, although the English House of Commons is the parent of all similar deliberative bodies in the civilized world, yet its rules and regulations are in many respects essentially unique.
Assuming that many of my readers have never enjoyed the opportunity of “sitting out a debate” in Parliament, I have ventured to hope that a description of some of the distinctive features which are peculiar to the House of Commons, and a sketch of some of its prominent members, might not be unwelcome.
In 1840 the corner-stone of the New Palace of Westminster was laid, and at the commencement of the session of 1852 the first official occupation of the House of Commons took place. The House of Peers was first used in 1847. It is not consistent with the object of this article to speak of the dimensions and general appearance of this magnificent structure. It is sufficient to say, that in its architectural design, in its interior decorations, and in its perfect adaptation to the purposes for which it was erected, it is alike creditable to the public spirit of the nation, and to the improved condition of the fine and useful arts in the present century.
The entrance to the House of Commons is through Westminster Hall. What wealth ot historical recollections is suggested by this name ! As, however, we are dealing with the present, we dare not even touch upon so fruitful a theme, but must hasten through the grand old hall, remarking only in passing that it is supposed to have been originally built in 1097, and was rebuilt by Richard II. in 1398. With a single exception,— the Hall of Justice in Padua, — it is the largest apartment unsupported by pillars in the world. Reluctantly leaving this historical ground, we enter St. Stephen’s Hall. This room, rich in architectural ornaments and most graceful in its proportions, is still further adorned with statues of “men who rose to eminence by the eloquence and abilities they displayed in the House of Commons.” Who will dispute their claims to this distinction ? The names selected for such honorable immortality are Selden, Hampden, Falkland, Lord Clarendon, Lord Somers, Sir Robert Walpole, Lord Chatham, Lord Mansfield, Burke, Fox, Pitt, and Grattan.
We have now reached the Great Central Hall, out of which open two corridors, one of which leads to the lobby of the House of Lords. Passing through the other, we find ourselves in the lobby of the House of Commons. Here we must pause and look about us. We are in a large apartment brilliantly lighted and richly decorated. As we stand with our backs to the Great Central Hall, the passage-way to the right conducts to the library and refreshment rooms, that on the left is the private entrance of the members through the old cloisters of Stephen’s, that in front is the main entrance to the floor of the House. In the corner on our right is a small table, garnished with all the materials for a cold lunch for the use of those members who have no time for a more substantial meal in the dining-room. Stimulants of various kinds are not wanting; but the habits of Englishmen and the presence of vigilant policemen prevent any abuse of this privilege. The refreshments thus provided are open to all, and in this qualified sense I may say that I have lunched with Disraeli, Lord John Russell, and Lord Palmerston.
But the hour has nearly come for opening the debate ; members are rapidly arriving and taking their seats, and we shall do well to decide upon the best mode of gaining admission to the House. There are a few benches on the floor reserved, as of right, for peers and their sons, and, by courtesy, for gentlemen introduced by them. I may be pardoned for presuming that this high privilege is beyond our reach. Our only alternative, then, is the galleries. These are, the Speaker’s Gallery, on the south side of the House, and directly opposite the Speaker’s chair, affording room for between twenty and thirty, and the Strangers’ Gallery, behind this, with seats for about sixty. Visitors have only these limited accommodations. The arrangement deprives members of all temptation to “ speak to the galleries,” and is consistent with the English theory, that all debates in the House should be strictly of a business character. And as to anything like applause on the part of the spectators, what punishment known to any criminal code among civilized nations would be too severe for such an offence ?
The American Minister (and of course every representative of a foreign power) has the right to give two cards of admission, entitling the bearer of each to a seat in the Speaker’s Gallery. But these cards admit only on a specified evening, and if not used then, are worthless. If you have called on our distinguished representative at the Court of St. James, you have probably discovered that his list is full for the next fortnight at least, and, although the Secretary of Legation politely asks your name, and promises you the earliest opportunity, you retire with a natural feeling of disappointment. Many Americans, having only a few days to spend in London, leave the city without making any further effort to visit the House of Commons. It would certainly have been well to forward, in advance of your arrival in London, a written application to the Minister; but as this has not been done, what remains ? Ask your banker for a note of introduction to some member of the House, and, armed with this epistle, make your appearance in the lobby. Give the note, with your card, to that grave, clerical-looking man in a little box on the left of the main entrance, and patiently await the approach of the “honorable gentleman.” If the Speaker’s Gallery is not full, he will have no difficulty in procuring for you the desired admission ; and if at leisure, he will undoubtedly spend a few moments in pointing out the distinguished men who may chance to be in attendance. Be sure and carry an opera-glass. Without this precaution, you will not be able to study to your satisfaction the faces of the members, for the House is by no means brilliantly illuminated. If for any reason this last expedient does not succeed, must we despair for this evening ? We are on the ground, and our engagements may not leave another so good opportunity.
I have alluded to the presence of policemen in the lobby. Do I dream, or has it been whispered to me, that half a crown, opportunely and adroitly invested, may be of substantial advantage to the waiting stranger? But by all means insist on the Speaker’s Gallery. The Strangers’ Gallery is less desirable for many reasons, and, being open to everybody who has a member’s order, is almost invariably crowded. At all events, it should be reserved as a dernier resort. As an illustration of the kindly feeling towards Americans, I may mention, parenthetically, that I have known gentlemen admitted to the Speaker’s Gallery on their simple statement to the door-keeper that they were from the United States. On one of these occasions, the official, a civil personage, but usually grave to the verge of solemnity, — the very last man you would have selected as capable of waggery, — assumed a comical counterfeit of terror, and said, — “Bless me! we must be obliging to Americans, or who knows what may come of it ? ”
It should be observed, however, that on a “ field night ” not one of the modes of admission which I have described will be of any service. Nothing will avail you then but a place on the Speaker’s list, and even in that case you must be promptly at your post, for “First come first served” is the rule.
But we have lingered long enough in the Lobby. Let us take our places in the Speaker’s Gallery, —for the essayist has hardly less power than, according to Sydney Smith, has the novelist, and a few strokes of the pen shall show you what many have in vain longed to see.
Once there, our attention is instantly attracted by observing that almost every member, who is not speaking, wears his hat. This, although customary, is not compulsory. Parliamentary etiquette only insists that a member while speaking, or moving from place to place, shall be uncovered. The gallery opposite the one in which we are seated is for the use of the reporters. That ornamental brass trellis in the rear of the reporters, half concealing a party of ladies, is a curious compromise between what is due to traditional Parliamentary regulations and the courtesy to which the fair sex is entitled. This relaxation of the old rules dates only from the erection of the new building.
The perfect order which prevails among members is another marked feature during the debates. The bewigged and berobed Speaker, seated in his imposing high-backed chair, seems rather to be retained in his place out of due deference to time-honored custom than because a presiding officer is necessary to preserve proper decorum. To be sure, demonstrations of applause at a good hit, or of discontent with a prosy speaker, are common, but anything approaching disorder is of rare occurrence.
The adherence to forms and precedents is not a little amusing. Take, for example, a “ division,” which corresponds to a call for the Ayes and Noes with us. To select an instance at random, — there happens this evening to be a good deal of excitement about some documents which it is alleged the Ministry dare not produce ; so the minority, who oppose the bill under debate, make a great show of demanding the papers, and, not being gratified, move to adjourn the debate, with the design of postponing the passage of the obnoxious measure.
“I move that the debate be adjourned.”
“ Who seconds ? ”
“ I do.”
“ Those in the affirmative,” etc., etc.
Feeble “ Aye.”
Most emphatic “ No.”
“ The noes have it.”
“ No ! ” “ No ! ”
“ Aye ! ” “ Aye ! ”
“Divide!” “Divide!” in a perfect Babel of orderly confusion.
(Speaker, very solemnly and decidedly,)-
“ Strangers must withdraw ! ”
Is the gallery immediately cleared ? Not a bit of it. Every man retains his place. Some even seem, to my fancy, to look a sort of grim defiance at the Speaker, as a bold Briton should. It is simply a form, which many years ago had some meaning, and, having once been used, cannot be discontinued without putting the Constitution in jeopardy. Five times this evening, the minority, intent on postponing the debate, call for a division,— and as many times are strangers gravely admonished to withdraw.
There are two modes of adjourning the House,— by vote of the members, and by want of a quorum. The method of procedure in the latter case is somewhat peculiar, and has, of course, the sanction of many generations. Suppose that a dull debate on an unimportant measure, numerous dinner-parties, a fashionable opera, and other causes, have combined to reduce the number ot members in attendance to a dozen. It certainly is not difficult to decide at a glance that a quorum (forty) is not present, and I presume you are every instant expecting, in your innocence, to hear, “ Mr. Speaker, I move,” etc. Pause a moment, my impatient friend, too long accustomed to the reckless haste of our Republican assemblies. Do not, even in thought, tamper with the Constitution. “ The wisdom of our ancestors” has bequeathed another and undoubtedly a better mode of arriving at the same result. Some member quietly intimates to the Speaker that forty members are not present, That dignified official then rises, and, using his cocked hat as an index or pointer, deliberately counts the members. Discovering, as the apparent result of careful examination, that there really is no quorum, he declares the House adjourned and sits down; whereupon the Sergeant-at-Arms seizes the mace, shoulders it, and marches out, followed by the Speaker. Then, and not until then, is the ceremony complete and the House duly adjourned.
This respect for traditional usage admits of almost endless illustration. One more example must suffice. When the Speaker discovers symptoms of disorder in the House, he rises in his place and says with all suitable solemnity, “ Unless Honorable Members preserve order, I shall name names !” and quiet is instantly restored. What mysterious and appalling consequences would result from persistent disobedience, nobody in or out of the House has ever known, or probably ever will know, — at any rate, no Speaker in Parliamentary annals lias been compelled to adopt the dreaded alternative. Shall I be thought wanting in patriotism, if I venture to doubt whether so simple an expedient would reduce to submission an insubordinate House of Representatives at Washington?
Like everything else thoroughly English, speaking in the House of Commons is eminently practical. “ The bias of the nation,” says Mr. Emerson, “is a passion for utility.” Conceive of a company of gentlemen agreeing to devote, gratuitously, a certain portion of each year to the consideration of any questions which may concern the public welfare, and you have the theory and the practice of the House of Commons. Of course there are exceptions to this general statement. There are not wanting constituencies represented by unfit men; but such members are not allowed to consume the time which belongs of right to men of capacity and tried ability. The test is sternly, almost despotically applied. A fair trial is given to a new member. If he is “ up to his work,” his name goes on the list of men whom the House will hear. If, however, his maiden speech is a failure, “ farewell, a long farewell ” to all his political aspirations. Few men have risen from such a fall. Now and then, as in the well-known instances of Sheridan, Disraeli, and some less prominent names, real genius, aided by dogged determination, has forced its way upward in spite of early ill-success; but such cases are very rare. The rule may work occasional injustice, but is it after all so very unreasonable ? “ Talking,” they contend, “ must be done by those who have something to say.”
Everything one sees in the House partakes of this practical tendency. There are no conveniences for writing. A member who should attempt to read a manuscript speech would never get beyond the first sentence. Nor does anybody ever dream of writing out his address and committing it to memory. In fact, nothing can be more informal than their manner in debate. You see a member rising with his hat in one hand, and his gloves and cane in the other. It is as if he had just said to his neighbor, “ I have taken a good deal of interest in the subject under discussion, and have been at some pains to understand it. I am inclined to tell the House what I think of it.” So you find him on the floor, or “ on his legs,” in parliamentary phrase, carrying this intention into effect in a simple, business-like, straightforward way. But if our friend is very long, or threatens to be tedious, I fear that unequivocal and increasing indications of discontent will oblige him to resume his seat in undignified haste.
Perhaps no feature of the debates in the House of Commons deserves more honorable mention than the high-toned courtesy which regulates the intercourse of members.
Englishmen have never been charged with a want of spirit; on the contrary, they are proverbially “ plucky,” and vet the House is never disgraced by those shameful brawls which have given to our legislative assemblies, state and national, so unenviable a reputation throughout the civilized world. How does this happen ? To Englishmen it does not seem a very difficult matter to manage. If one member charges another with ungentlemanly or criminal conduct, he must follow up his charge and prove it, — in which case the culprit is no longer recognized as a gentleman ; or if he fails to make good his accusation, and neglects to atone for his offence by ample and satisfactory apologies, he is promptly “sent to Coventry” as a convicted calumniator. No matter how high his social position may have been, whether nobleman or commoner, he shall not escape the disgrace he has deserved. And to forfeit one’s standing among English gentlemen is a punishment hardly less severe than to lose caste in India. In such a community, what need of duels to vindicate wounded honor or establish a reputation for courage ?
The members of the present House of Commons were elected in the spring of 1859. Among their number are several men who, in point of capacity, eloquence, and political experience, will compare not unfavorably with the ablest statesmen whom England has known for generations. 1 have thought that some description of their appearance and mental characteristics might not be unacceptable to American readers. As the best mode of accomplishing this object, I shall select an occasion, which, from the importance of the question under discussion, the deep interest which it awakened, and the ability with which it was treated, certainly presented as favorable an opportunity as could ever occur to form a correct opinion of the best speaking talent in the kingdom. The debate to which I allude took place early in the month of July, 1860.
My name being fortunately on the first list for the Speaker’s Gallery, I had no difficulty in taking my place the moment the door was open. It will be readily believed that every seat was soon filled. In front of the Speaker’s Gallery is a single row of seats designed for foreign ambassadors and peers. The first man to enter it was Mr. Dallas, and he was presently followed by other members of the diplomatic corps, and several distinguished noblemen.
It was very interesting to an American that almost the first business of the evening concerned his own country. Some member of the House asked Lord John Russell, then Secretary for Foreign Affairs, if he had received any recent despatches from the United States relating to the San Juan difficulty. It will he remembered, or would be, but for the rapid march of more momentous events, that only a short time before, news had reached England that General Harney, violating the explicit instructions of General Scott, so wisely and opportunely issued, had claimed for the United States exclusive jurisdiction over the island of San Juan. Lord John replied by stating what had been the highly honorable and judicious policy of General Scott, and the unwarrantable steps subsequently taken by General Harney, — that Lord Lyons had communicated information of the conduct of General Harney to President Buchanan, who had recalled that officer, and had forwarded instructions to his successor to continue in the course marked out by General Scott. This gratifying announcement was greeted in the House with hearty' cheers,— a spontaneous demonstration of delight, which proved not only that the position of affairs on this question was thought to be serious, but also the genuine desire of Englishmen to remain in amicable relations with the United States.
To this brief business succeeded the great debate of the session. Let me endeavor, at the risk of being tedious, to explain the exact question before the House. Mr. Gladstone, in his speech on the Budget, had pledged the Ministry to a considerable reduction of the taxes for the coming year. In fulfilment of this pledge, it had been decided to remit the duty on paper, thereby abandoning about £ 1,500,000 of revenue. A bill to carry this plan into effect passed to its second reading by a majority of fifty-three. To defeat the measure the Opposition devoted all its energies, and with such success that the bill passed to its third reading by the greatly reduced majority of nine. Emboldened by this almost victory, the Conservatives determined to give the measure its coup de grâce in the House of Lords. The Opposition leaders, Lord Derby, Lord Lyndhurst, Lord Ellenborough, and others, attacked the bill, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, its acknowledged author, with as much bitterness and severity as are ever considered compatible with the dignified decorum of that aristocratic body ; all the Conservative forces were rallied, and, what with the votes actually given and the proxies, the Opposition majority was immense.
Now all this was very easily and very quickly done. The Conservatives were exultant, and even seemed sanguine enough to believe that the Ministry had received a fatal blow. But they forgot, in the first flush of victory, that they were treading on dangerous ground, — that they were meddling with what had been regarded for centuries as the exclusive privilege of the House of Commons. English Parliamentary history teaches no clearer lesson than that the right to pass “ Money Bills,” without interference from the House of Lords, has been claimed and exercised by the House of Commons for several generations. The public was not slow to take the alarm. To be sure, several causes conspired to lessen somewhat the popular indignation. Among these were the inevitable expenses of the Chinese War, the certainty of an increased income tax, if the bill became a law, and the very small majority which the measure finally received in the House of Commons.
Nevertheless, the public mind was deeply moved. The perils of such a precedent were evident enough to any thinking man. Although the unwearied exertions of Bright, Roebuck, and other leading Radicals, could not arouse the people to that state of unreasoning excitement in which these demagogues delight, yet the tone of the press and the spirit of the public meetings gave proof that the importance of the crisis was not wholly underrated. These meetings were frequent and largely attended ; inflammatory speeches were made, strong resolutions passed, and many petitions numerously signed, protesting against the recent conduct of the Lords, were presented to the popular branch of Parliament.
In the House of Commons the action was prompt and decided. A committee was immediately appointed to search for precedents, and ascertain if such a proceeding was justified by Parliamentary history. The result of this investigation was anxiously awaited both by the Commons and the nation. To the disappointment of everybody, the committee, after patient and protracted research, submitted a report, giving no opinion whatever on the question, but merely reciting all the precedents that bore on the subject.
It must be confessed that the condition of affairs was not a little critical. Both the strength of the Ministry and the dignity of the House of Commons were involved in the final decision. But, unfortunately, the Ministerial party was far from being a unit on the question. Bright and the “ Manchester School ” demanded an uncompromising and defiant attitude towards the Lords. Lord Palmerston was for asserting the rights and privileges of the Commons, but for avoiding a collision. Where Mr. Gladstone would be found could not be precisely predicted ; but he was understood to be deeply chagrined at the defeat of his favorite measure, and to look upon the action of the Peers as almost a personal insult. Lord John Russell was supposed to occupy a position somewhere between the Premier and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If the leaders were thus divided in opinion, there was no less diversity of views among their followers. Some did not at all appreciate the nature or magnitude of the question, a few sympathized with the Conservatives, and very many were satisfied that a mistake had been made in sacrificing so large a source of revenue at a time when the immediate prospect of war with China and the condition of the national defences rendered it important to increase, rather than diminish the available funds in the treasury. The Opposition, of course, were ready to take advantage of any weak points in the position of their adversaries, and were even hoping that the Ministerial dissensions might lead to a Ministerial defeat.
It was under these circumstances that Lord Palmerston rose to define the position of the Ministry, to vindicate the honor and dignity of the Commons, to avert a collision with the House of Lords, and, in general, to extricate the councils of the nation from an embarrassing and dangerous dilemma.
A word about the personnel of the Premier, and a glance at some of his political antecedents. His Lordship has been for so many years in public life, and a marked man among English statesmen, that, either by engraving, photograph, or personal observation, his face is familiar to many Americans. And, certainly, there is nothing in his features or in the expression of his countenance to indicate genius or even ability. He is simply a burly Englishman, of middling height, with an air of constant good-humor and a very pleasant understanding with himself. Perhaps the first thing about him which impresses an American, accustomed at home to dyspeptic politicians and statesmen prematurely old, is his physical activity. Fancy a man of seventy-six, who has been in most incessant political life for more than fifty years, sitting out a debate of ten hours without flinching, and then walking to his house in Piccadilly, not less than two miles. And his body is not more active than his mind, He does something more than sit out a debate. Not a word escapes him when a prominent man is on his legs. Do not be deceived by his lazy attitude or his sleepy expression. Not a man in the House has his wits more thoroughly about him. Ever ready to extricate his colleagues from an awkward difficulty, to evade a dangerous question,—making, with an air of transparent candor, a reply in which nothing is answered,— to disarm an angry opponent with a few conciliatory or complimentary words, or to demolish him with a little good-humored raillery which sets the House in a roar; equally skilful in attack and retreat: such, in a word, is the bearing of this gay and gallant veteran, from the beginning to the end of each debate, during the entire session of Parliament. He seems absolutely insensible to fatigue. “ I happened,” said a member of the House, writing to a friend, last summer, “ to follow Lord Palmerston, as he left the cloak-room, the other morning, after a late sitting, and, as I was going his way, I thought I might as well see how he got over the ground. At first he seemed a little stiff in the legs; but when he warmed to his work he began to pull out, and before he got a third of the way he bowled along splendidly, so that he put me to it to keep him in view. Perhaps in a few hours after that long sitting and that walk home, and the brief sleep that followed, the Premier might have been seen standing bolt upright at one end of a great table in Cambridge House, receiving a deputation from the country, listening with patient and courteous attention to some tedious spokesman, or astonishing his hearers by his knowledge of their affairs and his intimacy with their trade or business.” On a previous night, I had seen Lord Palmerston in his seat in the House from 4 p. M. until about 2 A. M., during a dull debate, and was considerably amused when he rose at that late or early hour, and “ begged to suggest to honorable gentlemen,” that, although he was perfectly willing to sit there until daylight, yet he thought something was due to the Speaker, (a hale, hearty man, sixteen years his junior,) and as there was to be a session at noon of that day, he hoped the debate would be adjourned. The same suggestion had been fruitlessly made half a dozen times before ; but the Premier’s manner was irresistible, and amid great laughter the motion prevailed. The Speaker, with a grateful smile to the member for Tiverton, immediately and gladly retired, but the indefatigable leader remained at his post an hour longer, while the House was sitting in Committee on Supplies.
But his Parliamentary duties by no means fill up the measure of his public labors. Deputations representing all sorts of interests wait on him almost daily, his presence is indispensable at all Cabinet consultations, and as Prime Minister he gives tone and direction to the domestic and foreign policy of the English government. How much is implied in these duties and responsibilities must be apparent to all who speak the English language.
Now what is the secret of this vigorous old age, after a life spent in such arduous avocations ? Simply this, that a constitution robust by nature has been preserved in its strength by regular habits and out-door exercise. If I were to repeat the stories I have heard, and seen stated in English newspapers, of the feats, pedestrian and equestrian, performed by Lord Palmerston from early manhood down to the present writing, I fear I should be suspected by some of my readers of offering an insult to their understanding.
I must therefore content myself with saying that very few young men of our day and country could follow him in the field or keep up with him on the road.
A word about Lord Palmerston’s political antecedents. Beginning as Junior Lord of the Admiralty in the Duke of Portland’s Ministry, in 1808, he has since been once Secretary of War, five times Prime Minister, and once Secretary of State. From 1811 to 1831 he represented Cambridge University. Since 1835 be has represented Tiverton. It may be safely asserted that no man now living in England has been so long or so prominently in public office, and probably no man presents a more correct type of the Liberal, although not Radical, sentiment of England.
It may be well to state that on this evening there was an unusually large attendance of members. Not only were all the benches on the floor of the House filled, but the rare spectacle was presented of members occupying seats in the east and west galleries. These unfortunates belonged to that class who are Seldom seen in their places, but who are sometimes whipped in by zealous partisans, when important questions are under consideration, and a close vote may be expected. Their listless faces and sprawling attitudes proved clearly enough that they were reluctant and bored spectators of the scene. It deserves to be mentioned, also, that, although there are six hundred and fifty-six actual members of the House, the final vote on the question showed, that, even on that eventful night, only four hundred and sixty-two were present. The average attendance is about three hundred.
At half-past four, the Premier rose to address the House. He had already given due notice that he should introduce three resolutions, which, considering the importance of the subject, I make no apology for giving in full.
“ 1. That the right of granting aids and supplies to the Crown is in the Commons alone as an essential part of their Constitution, and the limitation of all such grants, as to the matter, manner, measure, and time, is only in them.
“ 2. That, although the Lords have exercised the power of rejecting bills of several descriptions relating to taxation by negativing the whole, yet the exercise of that power by them has not been frequent, and is justly regarded by this House with peculiar jealousy, as affecting the right of the Commons to grant the supplies and to provide the ways and means for the service of the year.
“ 3. That, to guard for the future against an undue exercise of that power by the Lords, and to secure to the Commons their rightful control over taxation and supply, this House has in its own hands the power so to impose and remit taxes, and to frame Bills of Supply, that the right of the Commons as to the matter, manner, measure, and time may be maintained inviolate.”
The burden of the speech by which the Premier supported these resolutions was this. The assent of both Houses is necessary to a bill, and each branch possesses the power of rejection. But in regard to certain bills, to wit, Money Bills, the House claims, as its peculiar and exclusive privilege, the right of originating, altering, or amending them. As the Lords have, however, the right and power of assenting, they have also the right and power of rejecting. He admitted that they had frequently exercised this right of rejection. Yet it must be observed, that, when they had done so, it had been in the case of bills involving taxes of small amount, or connected with questions of commercial protection. No case had ever occurred precisely like this, where a bill providing for the repeal of a tax of large amount, and on the face of it unmixed with any other question, had been rejected by the Lords.
“ But, in point of fact,” he continued, “ was there not another question involved ? Was it not clear, that, the bill having passed by a majority greatly reduced since its second reading, the Lords may have thought that it would be well to give the Commons further time to reflect ? Indeed, was there not abundant reason to believe that the Lords were not really initiating a new and dangerous policy, that of claiming to be partners with the House in originating and disposing of Money Bills ? Therefore, would it not be sufficient for the House firmly to assert its rights, and to intimate the jealous care with which it intended to guard against their infringement ? ”
Of course, this brief and imperfect abstract of an hour’s speech can do no sort of justice to its merits. It is much easier to describe its effect upon the House. From the moment when the Premier uttered his opening sentence, “ I rise upon an occasion which will undoubtedly rank as one of the first in importance among those which have occurred in regard to our Parliamentary proceedings,” he commanded the closest attention of the House. And yet he was neither eloquent, impressive, nor even earnest. There was not the slightest attempt at declamation. His voice rarely rose above a conversational tone, and his gestures were not so numerous or so decided as are usual in animated dialogue. His air and manner were rather those of a plain, well-informed man of business, not unaccustomed to public speaking, who had some views on the subject under discussion which he desired to present, and asked the ear ot the House for a short hour while he defined his position.
No one who did not appreciate the man and the occasion would have dreamed that he was confronting a crisis which might lead to a change in the Ministry, and might array the two Houses of Parliament in angry hostility against each other. But here lay the consummate skill of the Premier, He was playing a most difficult rôle, and ho played it to perfection. He could not rely on the support of the Radicals. He must therefore make amends for their possible defection by drawing largely on the Conservative strength. The great danger was, that, while conciliating the Conservatives by a show of concession, he should alienate his own party by seeming to concede too much. Now, that the effect which he aimed to produce excluded all declamation, all attempt at eloquence, anything like flights of oratory or striking figures of rhetoric, nobody understood better than Lord Palmerston.
In view of all these circumstances, the adroitness, the ability, the sagacity, and the success of his speech were most wonderful. Gladstone was more philosophical, statesmanlike, and eloquent; Whiteside more impassioned and vehement; Disraeli more witty, sarcastic, and telling; but Lord Palmerston displayed more of those qualities without which no one can be a successful leader of the House of Commons. The result was, that two of the resolutions passed without a division, and the third was carried by an immense majority. The Prime Minister had understood the temper of the House, and had shaped his course accordingly. As we have seen, he succeeded to a marvel. But was it such a triumph as a great and far-reaching statesman would have desired ? And this brings us to the other side of the picture.
Dexterous, facile, adroit, politic, versatile,— as Lord Palmerston certainly is,— fertile in resources, prompt to seize and use to the utmost every advantage, endowed with unusual popular gifts, and blessed with imperturbable good-humor, it cannot be denied that in many of the best and noblest attributes of a statesman he is sadly deficient. His fondness for political power and his anxiety to achieve immediate success inevitably lead him to resort to temporary and often unworthy expedients. A manly reliance on general principles, and a firm faith in the ultimate triumph of right and justice, constitute no part of his character. He lives only in the present. That he is making history seems never to occur to him. He does not aspire to direct, but only aims to follow, or at best to keep pace with public opinion. What course he will pursue on a given question can never be safely predicted, until you ascertain, as correctly as be can, what is the prevailing temper of the House or the nation. That he will try to “ make things pleasant,” to conciliate the Opposition without weakening the strength of his own party, you may be sure; but for any further clue to his policy you must consult the press, study the spirit of Parliament, and hear the voice of the people. I know no better illustration to prove the justice of this view of the Premier’s political failing than his bearing in the debate which I am attempting to describe. Here was a grave constitutional question. The issue was a simple and clear one. Had the Lords the right to reject a Money Bill which had passed the House? If historical precedents settled the question clearly, then there was no difficulty in determining the matter at once, and almost without discussion. If, however, there were no precedents bearing precisely on this case, then it was all the more important that this should be made the occasion of a settlement of the question so unequivocal and positive as effectually to guard against future complication and embarrassment, Now how did the Premier deal with this issue ? He disregarded the homely wisdom contained in the pithy bull of Sir Boyle Roche, that “ the best way to avoid a dilemma is to meet it plump.” He dodged the dilemma. His resolutions, worded with ingenious obscurity, skilfully evaded the important aspect of the controversy, and two of them, the second and third, gave equal consolation to the Liberals and the Conservatives. So that, in fact, it is reserved for some future Parliament, in which it cannot be doubted that the Radical element will be more numerous and more powerful, to determine what should have been decided on this very evening. It was cleverly done, certainly, and extorted from all parties and members of every shade of political opinion that admiration which the successful performance of a difficult and critical task must always elicit. But was it statesmanlike, or in any high sense patriotic or manly ?
The Premier was followed by R. P. Collier, representing Plymouth, lie had been on the committee to search for precedents, and he devoted an hour to showing that there was not, in all Parliamentary history, a single precedent justifying the action of the Lords. His argument was clear and convincing, and the result of it was, that no bill simply imposing or remitting a tax had ever in a single instance been rejected by the Upper House. In all the thirty-six cases relied on by the Opposition there was always some other principle involved, which furnished plausible justification for the course adopted by the Lords.
To this speech I observed that Mr. Gladstone paid strict attention, occasionally indicating his assent by an approving nod, or by an encouraging “Hear! Hear ! ” It is rare, indeed, that any speaker in the House secures the marked attention or catches the eye of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
To Collier succeeded Coningham, member for Brighton. Now as this honorable member was prosy and commonplace, not to say stupid, I should not detain my readers with any allusion to his speech, but as illustrating a prominent and very creditable feature of the debates in the House. That time is of some value, and that no remarks can be tolerated, unless they are intelligent and pertinent, are cardinal doctrines of debate, and are quite rigidly enforced. At the same time mere dulness is often overlooked, as soon as it appears that the speaker has something to say which deserves to be heard. But there is one species of oratory which is never tolerated for a moment, and that is the sort of declamation which is designed merely or mainly for home-consumption, — speaking for Buncombe, as we call it. The instant, therefore, that it was evident that Mr. Coningham was addressing, not the House of Commons, but his constituents at Brighton, he was interrupted by derisive cheers and contemptuous groans. Again and again did the indignant orator attempt to make his voice heard above the confusion, but in vain ; and when, losing all presence of mind, he made the fatal admission, — “ I can tell Honorable Gentlemen that I have just returned from visiting my constituents, and I can assure the House that more intelligent ” 舒舒 the tumult became so great, that the remainder of the sentence was entirely lost. Seeing his mistake, Mr. Coningham changed his ground. “ I appeal to the courtesy of Honorable Members; I do not often trespass upon the House ; I implore them to give me a patient and candid hearing.” This appeal to the love of “ fair play,” so characteristic of Englishmen, produced immediately the desired effect, and the member concluded without further interruption.
Mr. Edwin James was the next prominent speaker. He has won a wide reputation as a barrister, chiefly in the management of desperate criminal cases, culminating in his defence of Dr. Barnard, charged with being accessory to the attempted assassination of Louis Napoleon. The idol of the populace, he was elected by a large majority in May, 1859, as an extreme Liberal or Radical, to represent Marylebone in the present Parliament. His warmest admirers will hardly contend that since his election he has done anything to distinguish himself, or even to sustain the reputation which his success as an advocate had earned for him. The expensive vices to which he has long been addicted have left him bankrupt in character and fortune. His large professional income has been for some years received by trustees, who have made him a liberal allowance for his personal expenses, and have applied the remainder toward the payment of his debts. His recent disgraceful flight from England, and the prompt action of his legal brethren in view of his conduct, render it highly improbable that he will ever return to the scene of his former triumphs and excesses. Besides its brevity, which was commendable, his speech this evening presented no point worthy of comment.
Since the opening remarks of Lord Palmerston, five Radicals had addressed the House. Without exception they had denounced the action of the Lords, and more than one had savagely attacked the Opposition for supporting the proceedings of the Upper House. They had contended that the Commons were becoming contemptible in the eyes of the nation by their failure to take a manly position in defence of their rights. To a man, they had assailed the resolutions of the Premier as falling far short of the dignity of the occasion and the importance of the crisis, or, at best, as intentionally ambiguous. Thus far then the Radicals. The Opposition had listened to them in unbroken and often contemptuous silence, enjoying the difference of opinion in the Ministerial party, but reserving themselves for some foeman worthy of their steel. Nor was there, beyond a vague rumor, any clue to the real position of the Cabinet on the whole question. Only one member had spoken for the Government, and it was more than suspected that he did not quite correctly represent the views of the Ministry.
If any one of my readers had been in the Speaker’s Gallery on that evening, his attention would have been arrested by a member on the Ministerial benches, a little to the right of Lord Palmerston. His face is the most striking in the House, — grave, thoughtful, almost stern, but lighting up with wonderful beauty when he smiles. Usually, his air is rather abstracted,— not, indeed, the manner of one whose thoughts are wandering from the business under debate, but rather of one who is thinking deeply upon what is passing around him. His attitude is not graceful : lolling at full length, his head resting on the back of the seat, and his legs stretched out before him. He is always neatly, but never carefully dressed, and his bearing is unmistakably that of a scholar. Once or twice since we have been watching him, he has scratched a few hasty memoranda on the back of an envelope, and now, amid the silence of general expectation, the full, clear tones of his voice are heard. He has not spoken five minutes before members who have taken advantage of the dulness of recent debaters to dine, or to fortify themselves in a less formal way for the night’s work before them, begin to flock to their seats. Not an eye wanders from the speaker, and the attention which he commands is of the kind paid in the House only to merit and ability of the highest order. And, certainly, the orator is not unworthy of this silent, but most respectful tribute to his talents. His manner is earnest and animated, his enunciation is beautifully clear and distinct, the tones of his voice are singularly pleasing and persuasive, stealing their way into the hearts of men, and charming them into assent to his propositions. One can easily understand why he is called the “ golden-tongued.”
This is Mr. Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer, by right of eloquence, statesmanship, and scholarly attainments, the foremost man in England. I cannot hope to give a satisfactory description of his speech, nor of its effect upon the House. His eloquence is of that quality to which no sketch, however accurate, can do justice. Read any one of his speeches, as reported with astonishing correctness in the London “ Times,” and you will appreciate the clear, philosophical statement of political truth,— the dignified, elevated, statesmanlike tone,—the rare felicity of expression,—the rhetorical beauty of style, never usurping the place of argument, though often concealing the sharp angles of his relentless logic, — the marvellous ease with which he makes the dry details of finance not only instructive, but positively fascinating, — his adroitness in retrieving a mistake, or his sagacity in abandoning, in season, an indefensible position, — the lofty and indignant scorn with which he sometimes condescends to annihilate an insolent adversary, or the royal courtesy of his occasional compliments. But who shall be able to describe those attributes of his eloquence which address themselves only to the ear and eye: that clear, resonant voice, never sinking into an inaudible whisper, and never rising into an ear-piercing scream, its tones always exactly adapted to the spirit of the words, — that spare form, wasted by the severe study of many years, which but a moment before was stretched in languid ease on the Treasury benches, now dilated with emotion,— that careworn countenance inspired with great thoughts: what pen or pencil can do justice to these ?
If any one of that waiting audience has been impatiently expectant of some words equal to this crisis, some fearless and manly statement of the real question at issue, his wish shall be soon and most fully gratified. Listen to his opening sentence, which contains the key-note to his whole speech : — “It appears to be the determination of one moiety of this House that there shall be no debate upon the constitutional principles which are involved in this question ; and I must say, that, considering that gentlemen opposite are upon this occasion the partisans of a gigantic innovation, — the most gigantic and the most dangerous that has been attempted in modern times, — I may compliment them upon the prudence they show in resolving to be its silent partisans.” After this emphatic exordium, which electrified the House, and was followed by such a tempest of applause as for some time to drown the voice of the speaker, he proceeded at once to demonstrate the utter folly and error of contending that the action of the Lords was supported or justified by any precedent. Of course, as a member of the Cabinet, he gave his adhesion to the resolutions before the House, and indorsed the speech of the Premier. But, from first to last, he treated the question as its importance demanded, as critical and emergent, not to be passed by in silence, nor yet to be encountered with plausible and conciliatory expedients. He reserved to himself “ entire freedom to adopt any mode which might have the slightest hope of success, for vindicating by action the rights of the House.”
In fact, he alone of all the speakers of the evening rose to “ the height of the great argument.” He alone seemed to feel that the temporary success of this or that party or faction was as nothing compared with the duty of settling definitely and for all posterity this conflict of rights between the two Houses. Surveying the question from this high vantage-ground, what wonder that in dignity and grandeur he towered above his fellows? Here was a great mind grappling with a great subject, — a mind above temporary expedients for present success, superior to the fear of possible defeat. To denounce the Conservatives for not attacking the Ministerial resolutions may have been indiscreet. He may have been guilty of an apparent breach of Parliamentary etiquette, when he practically condemned the passive policy of the Cabinet, of which he was himself a leading member. But may we not pardon the natural irritation produced by the defeat of his favorite measure, in view of the noble and patriotic sentiments of his closing sentences?
“ I regard the whole rights of the House of Commons, as they have been handed down to us, as constituting a sacred inheritance, upon which I, for my part, will never voluntarily permit any intrusion or plunder to be made. I think that the very first of our duties, anterior to the duty of dealing with any legislative measure, and higher and more sacred than any such duties, high and sacred though they may be, is to maintain intact that precious deposit.”
The effect of this speech was indescribable. The applause with which he was frequently interrupted, and which greeted him as he took his seat, was Such as I have never heard in a deliberative assembly. And not the least striking feature of this display of enthusiasm was that it mainly proceeded from the extreme Liberal wing of the Ministerial party, with which Mr. Gladstone, representing that most conservative of all English constituencies, Oxford University, had hitherto been by no means popular. For several days the rumor was rife that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would resign his place in the Cabinet, and be the leader of the Radicals ! But Mr. Gladstone had other views of his duty, and probably he was never more firmly intrenched in the confidence of the nation, and more influential in the councils of the Government, than he is at this moment.
Mr. Gladstone had hardly taken his seat, when the long and significant silence of the Opposition was broken by Mr. Whiteside. This gentleman represents Dublin University, has been Attorney-General and Solicitor-General for Ireland, and was one of the most able and eloquent defenders of O’Connell and his friends in 1812. He is said to be the only Irishman in public life who holds the traditions of the great Irish orators, — the Grattans, the Currans, and the Sheridans. I will not detain my readers with even a brief sketch of his speech. It was very severe upon Mr. Gladstone, very funny at the expense of the Radicals, and very complimentary to Lord Palmerston. As a whole, it was an admirable specimen of Irish oratory. In the élan with which the speaker leaped to his feet and dashed at once into his subject, full of spirit and eager for the fray, in his fierce and vehement invective and the occasional ferocity of his attacks, in the fluency and fitness of his language and the rapidity of his utterance, in the unstudied grace and sustained energy of his manner, it was easy to recognize the elements of that irresistible eloquence by which so many of his gifted countrymen have achieved such brilliant triumphs at the forum and in the halls of the debate.
It might perhaps heighten the effect of the picture, if I were to describe the appearance of Mr. Gladstone during the delivery of this fierce Philippic,— the contracted brow, the compressed lip, the uneasy motion from side to side, and all the other customary manifestations of anger, mortification, and conscious defeat. But if my sketch be dull, it shall at least have the homely merit of being truthful. In point of fact, the whole harangue was lost upon Mr. Gladstone; for he left the House immediately after making his own speech, and did not return until some time after Mr. Whiteside had finished. In all probability he did not know how unmercifully he had been handled until he read his “ Times ” the next morning.
Six more speeches on the Liberal side, loud in praise of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, bitter in denunciation of the Conservatives, and by no means sparing the policy of the Prime Minister, followed in quick succession. They were all brief, pertinent, and spirited; with which comprehensive criticism I must dismiss them. Their delivery occupied about two hours, and many members availed themselves of this opportunity to leave the House for a while. Some sauntered on the broad stone terrace which lines the Thames, Not a few regaled themselves with the popular Parliamentary beverage,— sherry and soda-water; and others, who had resolutely kept their seats since the opening of the debate, rewarded their devotion to the interests of the public by a more elaborate repast. Now and then a member in full evening dress would lounge into the House, with that air of perfect self-satisfaction which tells of a good dinner by no means conducted on total-abstinence principles.
It was midnight when Mr. Disraeli rose to address the House. For years the pencil of “Punch” has seemed to take particular delight in sketching for the public amusement the features of this well-known novelist, orator, and statesman. After making due allowance for the conceded license of caricature, we must admit that the likeness is in the main correct, and any one familiar with the pages of “ Punch ” would recognize him at a glance. The impression which he leaves on one who studies his features and watches his bearing is not agreeable. Tall, thin, and quite erect, always dressed with scrupulous care, distant and reserved in manner, his eye dull, his lips wearing habitually a half-scornful, halfcontemptuous expression, one can readily believe him to be a man addicted to bitter enmities, but incapable of warm friendships.
He had been sitting, as his manner is, very quietly during the evening, never moving a muscle of his face, save when he smiled coldly once or twice at the sharp sallies of Whiteside, or spoke, as he did very rarely, to some member near him. A stranger to his manner would have supposed him utterly indifferent to what was going on about him. Yet it is probable that no member of the House was more thoroughly absorbed in the debate or watched its progress with deeper interest. Excepting his political ambition, Mr. Disraeli is actuated by no stronger passion than hatred of Mr. Gladstone. To have been a warm admirer and protégé of Sir Robert Peel would have laid a sufficient foundation for intense personal dislike. But Mr. Disraeli has other and greater grievances to complain of. This is not the place to enter at large into the history of the political rivalry between these eminent men. Enough to say, that in the spring of 1852 Mr. Disraeli realized the dream of his lifelong ambition by being appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the Ministry of Lord Derby. Late in the same year he brought forward his Budget, which he defended at great length and with all his ability. This Budget, and the arguments by which it was supported, Mr. Gladstone — who had already refused to take the place in the Derby Cabinet —attacked in a speech of extraordinary power, demolishing one by one the positions of his opponent, rebuking with dignified severity the license of his language, and calling upon the House to condemn the man and his measures. Such was the effect of this speech that the Government was defeated by a decided majority. Thus dethroned, Mr. Disraeli had the additional mortification of seeing his victorious opponent seated in his vacant chair. For, in the Ministry of Lord Aberdeen, which immediately succeeded, Mr. Gladstone accepted the appointment of Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Budget brought forward by the new Minister took by surprise even those who had already formed the highest estimate of his capacity; and the speech in which he defended and enforced it received the approval of Lord John Russell, in the well-known and well-merited compliment, that “it containod the ablest expositions of the true principles of finance ever delivered by an English statesman.” Since that memorable defeat, Disraeli has lost no opportunity of attacking the member for Oxford University. To weaken his wonderful ascendency over the House has seemed to be the wish nearest his heart, and the signal failure which has thus far attended all his efforts only gives a keener edge to his sarcasm and increases the bitterness of his spirit. That persistent and inflexible determination which, from a fashionable novelist, has raised him to the dignity of leader of the Conservative party in the House of Commons, that unsparing and cold-blooded malignity which poisoned the last days of Sir Robert Peel, and those powers of wit and ridicule which make him so formidable an adversary, have all been impressed into this service.
His speech this evening was only a further illustration of his controlling desire to enjoy an ample and adequate revenge for past defeats ; and, undoubtedly, Mr. Disraeli displayed a great deal of a certain kind of power. He was witty, pungent, caustic, full of telling hits which repeatedly convulsed the House with laughter, and he showed singular dexterity in discovering and assailing the weak points in his adversary’s argument. Still, it was a painful exhibition, bad in temper, tone, and manner. It was too plainly the attempt of an unscrupulous partisan to damage a personal enemy, rather than the effort of a statesman to enlighten and convince the House and the nation. It was unfair, uncandid, and logically weak. Its only possible effect was to irritate the Liberals, without materially strengthening the position of the Conservatives. When “ Dizzy " had finished, the floor was claimed by Lord John Russell and Mr. Bright. It was sufficiently evident that members, without distinction of party, desired to hear the last-named gentleman, for cries of “ Bright,” “ Bright,” came from all parts of the House. The member for Birmingham is stout, bluff, and hearty, looking very much like a prosperous, welldressed English yeoman. He is acknowledged to be the best declaimer in the House. Piquant, racy, and entertaining, he is always listened to with interest and pleasure ; but somehow he labors under the prevalent suspicion of being insincere, and beyond a small circle of devoted admirers has no influence whatever in Parliament.
To the manifest discontent of the House, the Speaker decided that the Honorable Secretary for Foreign Affairs was entitled to the floor. Lord John Russell deserves a more extended historical and personal notice than the legitimate limits of this article will allow. But, as his recent elevation to the peerage has led the English press to give a review of his political antecedents, and as these articles have been copied quite generally into our own leading newspapers, it may be fairly presumed that most of my readers are familiar with the prominent incidents in his long and honorable public career. As a speaker he is decidedly prosy, with a hesitating utterance, a monotonous voice, and an uninteresting manner. Yet he is always heard with respectful attention by the House, in consideration of his valuable public services, his intrinsic good sense, and his unselfish patriotism. On the question at issue, he took ground midway between Lord Palmerston and Mr. Gladstone.
It was now about two, A. M. Since the commencement of the debate eighteen members had addressed the House. At this point a motion prevailed to adjourn until noon of the same day.
On the reopening of the debate at that hour, Mr. Bright and a few other members gave their views upon the resolutions of the Premier, and the final vote was then taken with the result already indicated.