Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

minutely into an examination of the recent proceedings of the legislature, although we may be permitted to remark, that it would be difficult to select a session in the whole course of our parliamentary history in which so great a number of public bills have made their appearance in the two Houses, and more especially in the House of Commons, where individual members appear in this respect to be too much relieved from that restraint which ought to be imposed upon them by the judgment and gravity of the assembled body. Many bills introduced bear unequivocal marks of never having been maturely considered either in their immediate or remote effects. They make their appearance in the House nobody knows how, and it seems a good deal to depend upon the accident of their attracting or escaping observation whether they are lost or carried. 'But it does not now seem to enter into the contemplation of any one, that the reputation of a member of parliament is intimately coupled with the character of the bills he proposes. Hefore this course of legislation proceeds farther, we beg leave respectfully but decidedly to protest against it. The shape in which it usually displays itself is that of regulating acts, and they involve almost every objectionable quality which public laws can possess. They begin by trenching more or less on the liberty ofthe subject, which nothing but great and unquestionable general good can justify, and in the end do nothing but produce some unmeaning forms, while their substantial enactments remain perfectly nugatory. They endeavour to insure that fair dealing between buyer and seller, master and servant, which they neither can nor ought to accomplish, because they would destroy that circumspection which every person should be pbliged to exercise in the management of his own affairs: and they make the law of the land intricate and unequal, by subjecting one trade or occupation to restraint, while another, where there is the same reason, for interference, remains unfettered.

Were Parliament in its paternal kindness to frame a separate set of rules for the regulation of every craft or employment, exercised in this rich and trading country, it would make our municipal institutions irksome beyond endurance, and produce infmitely more inconvenience, fraud, and oppression than they were intended to remove. On the ground therefore of acts of regulation being mischievous in themselves, and affording encouragement to others of the same sort, we feel an insurmountable objection to the whole order, without excepting even that which was introduced last year by Sir Robert Peel in favour of children employed m cotton manufactures, though it is by far the strongest case for interference which has yet occurred. The laws respecting passengers by coaches and ships are liable to the same observation. If the Common law was insufficient to insure the safety of the subject, why should not a general enactment have been made, declaring that the owners of coaches and vessels should be bound under certain pains and penalties to carry passengers in safety to their destination, according to the express or implied conditions entered into between the contracting parties, without prescribing the manner in which it is done, to which constant experience shews that little or no attention is paid? The laws respecting passengers to America are particularly worthy of attention, as illustrating what will always happen when Parliament exceeds its proper province. It is well known that these acts were occasioned by the insufficient accommodation of passengers, which, wherever emigration prevails, will now and then inevitably happen. By the first act on the subject, the captain was only allowed to take one passenger on board for every 2j tons of the ship's burden. These 2| were by the second act increased to 5, and by the third were reduced to if for every adult, orS children under 14. So that in 1817, a ship-master was permitted to take on board 10 children under 14, where the year before he was permitted to take only 1. Which of these regulations is the best? Some of them must of necessity have been bad, and all of them together have probably aggravated the very distress they were meant to alleviate. The same remark applies to the acts in favour of Saving Banks. When these institutions first came into notice, greater expectations were raised, than, excellent as they are, they will probably be found, in every instance, to justify. Among their other patrons was the late Mr. George Rose, who mainly contributed to the passing of the 57 Geo. III. c. 130. which contains a complete plan for their management, to which they are all obliged to conform. Greater disservice it is feared could not have been done to them. The utmost that was required was, to put them on the same footing on which benefit societies were placed by 33 Geo. III. c. 54. sect. 10. giving them a preferable claim on the effects of anv officer of the society, who died or became insolvent with any of the society's money in his hands. To do more for them was worse than letting them alone altogether. Nothing deadens interest so much as to take the management out of the hands of those to whom it naturally belongs, and the discussions which naturally take place among the members of such a society, respecting the management and disposal of its funds, are among the chief springs of that industry and economy by which the savings were originally effected. Indeed it may be remarked generally, that no greater mistake in legislation can be committed, than to treat the labouring or any other classes of society, as incapable of the superintendence of their own concerns: for they as well as their superiors, when guilty of thoughtlessness or vice, ought to be left to feel the consequences of their own misconduct.

We We are aware that this opinion will not meet with the approbation of many whose private character we respect, and the motives of whose public conduct we admire; but we cannot, upon any sound principle we have yet discovered, approve of the spirit of those laws, some of which have passed and others are in contemplation, by which the comforts of bankrupts, felons, and disorderly persons are to be increased and their punishment mitigated, and certain employments deemed noisome or unhealthy to be forcibly abolished by legislative interference. If these attempts to reform by kind treatment and the bestowment of additional comfort should ultimately succeed, we shall be among the number of those who will most unfeignedly rejoice at it; but the amendment of society, by relaxing the vigour of the law exactly in proportion as those who are amenable to it become degraded, is an expectation which neither experience nor reflection will suffer us to entertain. But as we do not approve of a rapid departure from the wholesome austerity of our ancient laws on the one hand, we beg it to be understood that we are not the advocates of indiscriminate and extreme rigour on the other. Experience and the change of times may shew considerable alterations of them to be necessary, but we cannot help entertaining alarm, when we observe that those by whom such alterations are most zealously promoted are persons more remakable for excellence of intention than of understanding, and who instead of confining themselves to private acts of charity where kind affections cannot be too much indulged, step into the place of statesmen and legislators where such feelings are peculiarly apt to mislead them. Of all innovators in law, those who by way of distinction are denominated benevolent men, are the most dangerous because the most popular, while he who justly aspires to the character of a great legislator, must be content to be one of the most ill-requited of all the benefactors of his country. Like the influence of winter on the vegetable world, the salutary and fructifying nature of his measures will be abundantly disclosed in their ultimate effects, but the appearance they present at the moment of their adoption is almost invariably severe and uninviting; and those who delight in the sudden and transient changes produced by a more artificial and imposing system, reluctantly acknowledge their beneficence. His acts are all of a simple and unassuming kind, and he displays no quality calculated either to engage the admiration of the high, or the affections of the vulgar. He forces no new branch of trade, nor supports any declining manufacture, and however acutely on many occasions he may feel as a man for the partial or general distress of the country, his duty as a statesman may oblige him to withhold any legislative assistance. He is obliged to maintain the rights of the absent and unpretending, in

opposition opposition to the present and importunate; to incur the hatred of powerful individuals and corporations, for resisting claims contrary to the good of the community at large; and will always prefer sure, steady, and progressive improvement to splendid but transient prosperity.

Even in seasons of scarcity, accidental or local calamity, or .commercial difficulty, the pressure can scarcely ever be so great as to justify legislative interposition. If such cases exist, it is only when the safety of the whole political fabric is endangered, aml even then consequences generally result from it, which the most penetrating mind could not have anticipated. More striking instances of this cannot be given than the 43d of Elizabeth for the relief of the poor, and the Bank Restriction act in 1797- It's possible that these laws, at the time they were passed, may have been absolutely necessary. On that point no opinion is here expressed, and they are only quoted to shew, that unless forced upon us by lawful necessity, there is hardly any temporary exertion or suffering which it would not have been wiser to undergo, than to pass laws which counteract the main springs which govern human conduct. The first of these laws, which is suggested, by the able author of the Letter to Mr. Peel, to have arisen from extreme distress, occasioned by the temporary inadequacy of the price of labour, has in the issue caused more legislation, litigation, national impoverishment, and individual misery, than perhaps any single law which ever was promulgated. The effects of the second, have in some respects, followed still more rapidly. During the '21 years the last has existed, including the acts for restricting cash payments by the Banks of England and Ireland, the suspension of the prohibition of the negociation of promissory notes under a limited sum, the permission to bankers in Scotland to issue notes under a certain amount, those respecting Bank tokens, and the selling of the gold coin of the realm for more than its nominal amount in Bank notes, all of which owe their origin to it, the Bank Restriction act has already been followed by 46 others. The full development of these two enactments has probably not yet taken place, but the effect they have already had on the affairs of the country, and laborious investigations they have occasioned both in Parliament and in print, forcibly recals Livy's observation of the Roman people, 'deinde ut magis magisque lapsi sint, turn ire cceperint praecipites, donee ad hac tempora, quibus nee vitia nostra nee remedia pati possumus, perventum est.'

Having said so much of the love of legislation, and the alarming pitch to which it is now carried, we cannot quit the subject without observing that the evil could not have proceeded so far as it has if the two houses of parliament had faithfully discharged their dtitv.

We

[ocr errors]

We are far from undervaluing the extraordinary talents and industry displayed by many of their individual members, but we cannot help thinking that the business of legislation is usually conducted with a degree of carelessness extremely criminal. Many bills of great general or local importance never receive any attention at all; and when they do, what is called the principle of the bill is commonly the only part of it which members deign to discuss, leaving any blunder in the detail or unconstitutional clause which it contains to be discovered oat of doors, or afterwards detected when produced in courts of law. The fact mentioned by Lord Stanhope, in the House of Lords, on the 6th of April, 1814, that by a particular statute the punishment of fourteen years transportation was to be inflicted for a particular offence, 'and that upon conviction one half thereof should go to the informer and the other to the king,' is a strong illustration of it. The act has not come within our own observation; but if true, every one is aware how the circumstance must have happened. The original punishment was probably a fine, for which, in the last stage of the bill, some member suddenly substituted transportation, without he or any one else examining the bill to discover what subsequent alterations the previous one had rendered necessary. In the same way, the bill for facilitating dispatch of business on the Equity side of the Court of Exchequer passed in silence through both houses as a mere regulating act, though, considering what it was, and the precedent it may afford for future alterations in the courts of King's Bench and Common Pleas, it certainly deserved as much consideration as the bill for appointing a Vice Chancellor, which created so much discussion.* The 53 Geo. III. c. 160. respecting Unitarians, crept through in the same manner. We by no means wish to bring the principle of the bill into question, but may without » giving offence be permitted to observe, that it is extremely singular and inconsistent, that the Test Act should remain unrepealed, and the claims of the Roman Catholics produce almost every year so keen debates in parliament without being granted, and yet that this act, which is perhaps more dangerous to various institutions in Church and State than both of them put together, should have passed through the two Houses of Parliament apparently unnoticed or disregarded, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Chester

* Since writing the above this has actually taken place, and a bill has been introduced into the House of Commons to regulate the courts of King's Bench and Common Pleas, which, if we understand one of its provisions as it affects motions for new trials, would produce one of the most important changes in these courts which they have undergone since their institution. We are glad to find that it will not be pressed till next session, and by that means receive a degree of consideration which every important proposed change in the law ought to meet with.

« AnteriorContinuar »