The House of Lords

DURING the year that is passing the Senate of the United States has been the mark of sharp criticism; and even those who have examined it most sharply must admit that it stands higher to-day than it has done for many months as a deliberating, revising, and checking body. But the keenest criticism which our Senate has received is nothing to what is at this moment uttered, and may, even before these words can be printed, pass from utterance into action, of the Upper Chamber of the British Parliament, the venerable and powerful House of Lords.

A great deal has been written, by no means all of it according to knowledge, on the history of the House of Lords, the steps in the transformation of the Great Council of the Norman and Angevin kings into the baronage of the Plantagenets and the peerage of the last four centuries. This is by no means a purely antiquarian study. There is locked up in that history the secret why England never became, as France and Spain did, the mere footstool of a throne, but retained, in close resemblance to its original form, and with no little of its original spirit, that traditional constitution which secured to the English people, in what they thought days of tyranny, a living share of the freedom which Cerdic and Ida had brought from the mouths of the Weser and the Elbe. If one were to strike out from the substance of English freedom all that has been wrought for it by the Upper House of Parliament, the Earls and Barons, not only the history, but the actual liberty, would shrink to rags.

It is of course generally understood that the House of Lords is a hereditary body, the titles and rights passing from father to son, and in some cases to daughters, — though as yet no peeress in her own right has ever been admitted to a seat in the House, however readily she may be admitted to walk in a coronation procession. There is also an undefined belief that a considerable part of the peerage dates back to extreme antiquity, to that shadowy age vaguely known as the age of the Conquest, — an epoch, as ordinarily conceived, which never had any inhabitants but the living fictions of Ivanhoe, where followers of St. Francis, who was born in 1182, consort with men who remembered the actual Norman conquest of 1066. For instance, Hawthorne, in his wonderful vision of Earth’s Holocaust, beholding the cremation of all evidences of title and rank, says, “Tossed into the flames were the patents of nobility of English peers, from the wormeaten instruments signed by William the Conqueror down to the bran-new parchment of the latest lord who has received honors from the fair hand of Victoria.”

But William the Conqueror signed nothing like modern patents of nobility, and no peer of England can trace his title to him or any of his successors for two hundred years. A very few peers date back in the female line to Edward I; and, with one anomalous exception, no earldom antedates that of Shrewsbury, conferred on John Talbot, Shakespeare’s stout warrior, in 1440. Such is the date of the oldest peerages; a few were conferred by the Tudors; but Elizabeth was sparing of hereditary, as of all other honors, and in her reign the order of dukes became extinct, and remained so for over fifty years.

The Stewarts were lavish of titles of nobility, both in England and Scotland, positively selling them to replenish their ever drained treasury. The majority of these new peers were stanch to the royal cause, while a goodly number of the more ancient nobility sided with the Parliament in the “Great Rebellion.” Charles II lavished the title of duke from family affection, and William III from policy; yet the peerage as a whole remained a great and exceptional honor nearly through the eighteenth century, until Burke’s measures of economy introduced a mighty change.

All through the early and middle Georgian period political services had been rewarded, not merely by sinecure offices, but by large cash pensions. This source of royal bounty had been sensibly choked, and William Pitt, determined to get votes by any method, persuaded King George III to multiply peers to an extent never dreamed of. Dukes he would not create out of the royal family; but whereas the death of the Marquess of Rockingham had erased that order from the English peerage, Pitt made nine marquesses in his twenty years of power; and the lesser ranks were multiplied in proportion. Of course, the male succession was steadily failing in the older houses, and many of the new peers were childless. Still the numbers grew; and whereas in Walpole’s time the House of Lords had been a moderate - sized and decidedly Whiggish body, Pitt’s upper chamber was overwhelmingly Tory, and presented for years a steady resistance to all manner of needed reforms. In 1831, when the reform of Parliament was called for by nearly the whole nation except the Lords, and the House of Commons would endure none but a reform ministry, Lord Grey obtained from the king authority to swamp the Tory majority by a wholesale creation of peers; at least fifty would have been needed; but the existing Lords were so frightened by the prospect that active opposition was withdrawn.

For some time afterwards not many peers were made. Lord Melbourne’s Whig ministry created no little scandal, and was mercilessly satirized by Disraeli in Coningsby, for reviving dormant peerages, which had fallen into abeyance among the descendants of heiresses, and had given no seat in the House for centuries, and were suddenly “called out.” in the person of claimants who possessed a very small share of the original holder’s blood. Sir Robert Peel scarcely made a peer, — he did not need them; and some moderation was maintained till about thirty years ago; since when ministers have vied with each other in the promotion of their respective partisans; till the House, to which Henry VII, after the Wars of the Roses had cut the old baronage to pieces, summoned less than thirty peers, now counts its members by hundreds, and grows every year.

At first sight there is not much likeness between the comfortable country gentlemen, retired lawyers, blasé men of fashion, and liberal subscribers to party funds, who now drop in to, rather than frequent, their magnificent hall, and “the mail-covered barons, who proudly to battle led their vassals from Europe to Palestine’s plain,” in the days of the Henrys and Edwards; but in one point the House has always maintained its character through centuries, — it is an aristocracy of birth, but it is still more emphatically one of wealth. The law of entail and primogeniture has kept the landed estates together as far as the law can. Many have passed by heiresses to new names, or been sold by spendthrift lords; many holders of ancient titles have lost the wealth that gilded their ancestors’ coronets; but new peers are almost always rich, and a title is still an attraction to an heiress. We sometimes hear that the House of Lords represents nothing. This is false; it represents property. Tennyson’s new Lincolnshire farmer, whose horse’s hoofs trotted “proputty, proputty, proputty,” is the type of a vast number of Englishmen. Such men are not only content, but proud, to be represented by the House of Lords. They know that as long as the Lords have their say, “proputty” will have a stanch body of organized champions.

In ennobling wealthy supporters, recent governments have not been very scrupulous as to the sources of the wealth. The great brewers, Allsopp and Bass, were raised to the English, and Guinness to the Irish peerage. much to the disgust of some fastidious people, who declared the nobility was becoming “the beerage.” But the average conservative Briton does not understand objections to malt liquor. He would be much more likely to sneer at Lord Kelvin’s peerage for scientific discoveries he cannot comprehend, or Lord Lister’s for medical services, which he admits are useful, but cannot conceive are ennobling, than at crowning with deserved laurel such eminent pillars of Church and State as brewers. Even Tom Hughes, the radical of radicals, told us in School Days at Rugby of “good honest beer.”

Now it seems to modern theorists, — and to many who are more than theorists, — a strange abuse that the king or his ministers should give a seat for life in a great governing body to any one whom he may choose, and a still grosser abuse that when the new peer, who had some claim to his elevation, dies, he should be succeeded in plenitude of right by his eldest son, who may have no claim, or even less than none. Few men ever deserved high rank better than Earl Cairns, the great equity lawyer and Conservative statesman; few ever deserved it less than his son and heir. The abuse is not seldom aggravated by the fact that a second son is far better qualified to succeed than the elder. The second Lord Chatham was a nonentity; his brother nearly their father’s equal; the late Lord Salisbury, born a second son, succeeded to the peerage by a brother’s early death.

An attempt was made, about fifty years ago, to create peers for life. The plan, undoubtedly a good one, was defeated by the unquenchable factiousness of Lord Lyndhurst, then over eighty; in late years the reform has been carried through, but only for that peculiar province of the Upper House, its high appellate jurisdiction in law. In this jurisdiction all but “law lords” have long waived their rights. But more irritating by a good deal than the hereditary claim to legislation is its non-exercise. The legislators do not legislate. The majority of them seein to care nothing for the ancient and mighty rights vested in them. A quorum of the Lords is three; and of the Commons, indeed, only forty; so that it is entirely possible for a bill to go through all its stages and be presented to the king as an act for his signature, in which not fifty men have had a hand. If a member of the House of Commons should regularly absent himself, his constituents would very soon call him to account, although his seat is assured on an average nearly as long as that of a United States senator, who may stay away his whole six years if he choose. But a peer has his seat for life, and all England crying out against him could not make him occupy it if he did not want to.

The peers complain that it is of no use for them to meet in large numbers and sit long, for they have nothing to do. Most important bills are introduced in the House of Commons by the ministry, debated to rags there, and not sent up to the Lords till the session is near its close. They assert that if they had these measures in time they could do their unquestioned duty of revision promptly, intelligently, and continuously. More 舒 if the Commons, instead of standing on punctilios derived from remote times, would encourage the Lords to initiate more bills, legislation could go on pari passu in both houses, to their mutual advantage.

But ever since the Commons felt that they had the real power in England, they have determined to be as far as may be the sole legislators. They positively grudge the Peers a coördinate voice, not only in decision, but in discussion. Hence they are overworked; Parliamentary government gets every day more discredited; while the Lords, who admit that power has largely slipped from them, justly feel that the share they ought to have in the business of the nation is denied them.

This comparative insignificance of the Lords, this gradual drawing away, not only of the reality but the semblance of power to the Lower House, has led to avoidance of the Peers’ benches by many men who would honor them. To refuse a peerage might almost be called a common thing. When the Earl of Selborne died, who as Sir Roundel] Palmer had been made Lord Chancellor, his son, a prominent M. P., declared he would not go to the Upper House, — that he would unpeer himself. But such a thing had not been done for four centuries, — he had to be an hereditary lawmaker.

It is well known that most peers begin by serving in the House of Commons, before coming to their titles, — and it is reckoned a disadvantage when that succession comes at such an early age that the peer has had no chance to represent a constituency; such was the case with the late Duke of Argyll, able, eloquent, high-minded, well-informed, — he lacked just what a few years in the “House” alone can give.

The antiquated constitution of the House of Lords, and its comparative neglect of its duties, irritates modern reformers both theoretical and practical, and has led them often to call for its overthrow. But at the bottom of this charge of obsoleteness and inefficiency is the fear that the peers may take it into their heads to be energetic and industrious, constant in attendance and active in operation. If they were so, — if the Lords chose to be as vigorous as they were in 1689 or 1782, or even in 1807 and 1832, — the democratic element in the United Kingdom would have hard work to complete the change which it has carried so far, and longs to carry farther. What the Lords can do now was shown by Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill. His immense personal influence, and the fear of an Irish revolt, added to no small amount of serious conviction, forced the bill through the Commons. The Lords met in numbers scarce-known for a lifetime ; the case was put on both sides with great force, and with that serious, lofty, high-bred eloquence that has never become extinct in the Upper House during many centuries. The bill was rejected by an immense majority; and the friends of the measure had the satisfaction of knowing that the verdict of England was against them and with the peers; and not a few voices raised the cry which is heard at steadily recurring intervals, “ Thank Heaven we have a House of Lords ! ”

Such cases are exceptional. It is rare indeed that the present peers see fit to resist the principle of a measure on which the Commons are practically united; still rarer that they push their resistance to the point of rejection. In 1869 the bill for the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland came perilously near failure, — and the consequences of rejection can scarcely be conjectured. But by the joint efforts of Archbishop Tait, the Earl of Clarendon, and Lord Cairns a settlement was made, worthy of the dignity of both houses and both causes.

But there is a general and growing sentiment in the United Kingdom that the Lords ought not to retain even the nominal power of rejecting what the Commons have passed; that its existence, if not wiped out, must be seriously modified; or, in Lord Rosebery’s phrase, “It must mend or end.”

There are those in England, glorying in the name of Radicals, who ask nothing better than to have the House of Lords swept away entirely, — “ended,” — and nothing put in its place. They seem to have come straight down from the days of Couthon and Saint-Just, and their National Convention which pretended to be the French people. Or we can help them to a more respectable authority, — the name of one who had quite as much patriotism, much more experience, and what the French Revolutionists tried to abolish together with nobility and January, — common sense. Dr. Franklin at eighty-two favored a single house for the Federal legislature. It was in line with the constitution of Pennsylvania, — but Pennsylvania changed.

The idea that all power must be in the people, and that for the expression of the people’s will a single house duly chosen, duly deliberating, and then deciding once for all without appeal, is all sufficient, seems to have a fascination for some democratic theorists who are always calling on us to trust the people. But the belief that there is needed a second chamber, organized on a different basis from the great popular assembly, at least to revise, if not to veto, is deeply rooted in the Aryan mind, — for the institution of two bodies goes back to Homer, and back of Homer, — and at the root of that belief is a conviction, which few men in public life have the courage to assert, — that any people, at least in its first impulses, needs to be saved from itself by some authority outside of its immediate representatives.

But if the Upper House is not to be ended, how is it to be mended ? Europe and America and the British colonies, since the great political revolutions of the last century, have seen the establishment of a score of senates, some elective, some appointive, some constructed on a joint principle. Many of these bodies do their work well enough, — but they are those in which no great international problems have arisen. In most cases the Lower House has asserted its supremacy, and the Upper House is a respectable, but hardly an authoritative body; in a few, like our Senate, it has more than asserted itself, and made the Lower House to feel that it is really the paramount body. The great difficulty has been to find some process, whether by appointment by the executive, election by the Lower House, popular election by larger districts and in smaller numbers, whereby the Upper House can really maintain a distinctive and original character. In this regard our state system was a most fortunate circumstance, to which there are parallels in Switzerland and in the German Empire. But could any such basis be found in the rest of the British Constitution, if the House of Lords were abolished ? A species of federative assembly, not wholly unlike our Senate, might possibly be chosen by the county councils; if this were done, it is quite certain that seats in it would be almost forced at the first election on members of the House of Lords, who are in much demand for the county councils themselves.

But the British counties are already doubly represented in the councils and the House of Commons. An Upper House chosen by their means would only bring about exactly what we see in so many of the United States, — a smaller body which is really only a concentrated reflection of the larger, as in a concave mirror, and like that apt to be distorted, that is, more accessible to improper influence. Such senates may be tolerable as creations from the beginning; but they have none of the dignity and individual character needed in a body which is to replace the august House of Lords.

And when the new Senate is procured, shall it be a controlling or merely a revising senate ? Some persons have declared in favor of keeping the House of Lords, provided its power shall extend to revising only, — that it may refuse assent once to a measure passed by the Commons, but that that House may, if it chooses, finally pass it over the Lords’ veto. This is practically what happens now; but it is hard to believe that a body so avowedly as well as actually impotent could long retain the national respect, or find its “revisions” much regarded by the all-powerful Commons. Our legislatures are subject to a stricter and better revision in the power of the courts to annul unconstitutional acts.

The veteran Radical, Professor Goldwin Smith, who advocates a revisory Senate, thinks the Privy Council could at once step into the proposed vacancy. That is a very ancient and very honorable body, to which the king, that is, the ministry, names certain exalted personages as a matter of course, and appoints on coming into power a certain number of its most prominent official and other partisans from both Houses of Parliament This venerable body very rarely meets as a whole; but it has many select committees for executive work, of which far the most important is the Cabinet. It certainly would have many of the qualities needed in an appointive Senate; but as many of its principal members are also members of the House of Commons, the existing Privy Council could never become the Upper House.

A method which would entail the least radical change would be that of selection by the Lords from their own number.

This principle of representation already exists. Scotland and Ireland, before their respective unions, had parliamentary peers of their own; and these bodies select a number to sit in the Imperial House of Lords, — the capacity of choice descending from father to son. This method, no doubt, retains the hereditary principle. But is Britain so very sure to give that up ? It is rooted, and has been for centuries on centuries, in her entire polity. Fifty years ago the cry was that Queen Victoria was to reign for life, but that her son should never be allowed to succeed. At this day hereditary monarchy is as strong as ever in England; and throughout Europe from Spain to Norway, the chances of increase in the number of republics seem to lessen every day. Are Messieurs les Doctrinaires quite sure that the people of the British isles as a whole consider hereditary legislation an effete and pernicious element ? The nation has repeatedly surprised itself by its attachment to that part of its constitution. It at this moment eagerly selects noblemen for membership in its county councils. It has seen the Lords absorb not only soldiers, sailors, statesmen, squires, and lawyers, but physicians, authors, scientists, capitalists, manufacturers. Is it prepared to throw all that overboard ? Is it certain that a revising house, which before long, if not at once, would be no more, however chosen, could serve the people better than their ancient hereditary Senate ?

The Lords have never separated themselves from the people; they have been, in all ages, recruited from it, and after one generation all their descendants, except the head of each house, fall back into it. They are not a noblesse, like the Continental aristocracies. They have more than once stood for liberty when the Commons have been recreant; such things are called ancient history now; but they were written for our learning. They are absolutely independent; not forced to resign their trust at the whim of a constituency, like Burke in old times, and Sir Edward Clarke the other day. With many inefficient members they have never lacked leaders of supreme ability; and they possess almost to a man the character, so dear to English and Scottish minds, of perfect simplicity. There never was a body of men with so little pose, whose way of dealing with their fellow men was so devoid of assumption, pretence, or flattery, as these same peers, from whom too many of their countrymen would be only too eager to accept such hateful traits.

They, no doubt, as a rule oppose a strongly conservative majority to such a reforming one as now dominates the House of Commons; but English history is full of conservative reactions, when the people, frightened by the violence of their own representatives, have fallen back on the protection of the feudal House. That House has always furnished leaders, eloquent, patient, brave in every sound reform; and if its monument was soon to be erected, its epitaph must contain many a word of gratitude for the long line of services it has rendered to British freedom, beginning with the Great Charter.

Americans cannot afford to neglect or sneer at the crises in English politics, any more than England could afford to neglect or sneer at ours in 1861. It is an insult at once to philosophy and to common sense to declare that all nations will prosper under a uniform set of institutions. The strangely composite people that holds the British Isles has had its full share of political vicissitudes. Its constitution, founded six hundred years and more ago, included in no one document, but far more stable than many engrossed patterns of government, has seen every part of itself in danger of perishing, and then has taken on a new lease of life, to the amazement and envy of foreign nations. If that life is to continue, it will not be by violent changes of polity, though more than one such it has survived; but by the operation of the strange genius of its people, which, as its great poet says, “Nought shall make us rue if England to itself do rest but true.”