« AnteriorContinuar »
for disclosure, those in which the abuses to be concealed are the most enormous. It is therefore plain, that this peculiar provision of the act is calculated solely for the protection of the greatest delinquents.
There is but one topic more on which we are anxious at this time to express our sentiments; but that is a point of cardinal importance, we mean, the revival of the Committee by the New Parliament. The reasons which prompt to this measure are numerous and powerful; and such, we fervently hope, as even the great body of sinister interests arrayed against them, will not be able to overcome. If sufficient reason existed for the first formation of the Committee on Education,-and that it will not be very modest to deny, after all the compliments which have been paid to them by the leaders of all parties, on the importance of their labours, and after that importance has been so conspicuously manifested by their reports, and so fully recognised by the public-we may, without hesitation affirm, that still greater reason exists at present for the continuance of their labours. What they have already done, has chiefly serv ed to show the magnitude and importance of what yet remains for them to do. As yet they have done nothing but inquire into the present state of education among the poor; and even this preliminary operation is still but imperfectly performed. They have indeed discovered enough to make manifest to the world the deplorable state of England in that important respect; but it is rather a gross and general conception, than a minute acquaintance, that they have been able to acquire. For this degree of knowledge-for that sort of knowledge which is required to form the basis of a practical superstructure-much more inquiry must be made.
But even if this important portion of the business had been accomplished, and the labours of the Committee had lasted so long as to lay before us a complete delineation of our actual circumstances, this would have been but a part, and a`small one, of the great business to be performed. The only rational end of ascertaining exactly the badness of any situation, is to ascer tain the means of improvement. Assuredly, it is an important inquiry. After having proved, by examination, that there is a lamentable and disgraceful want of education in this country; that in a country where science and refinement have made so great a progress among one part of the people, there is another, and that the largest part, immersed in the most deplorable ignorance; it would be strange if we did not proceed to find out what are the best means of altering this deplorable state of circumstances, and of introducing among the people that know
ledge, and that mental improvement, on which the happiness and progress of society so entirely depend.
Assuredly this inquiry cannot be too speedily entered upon, and too earnestly pursued. And if this position is conceded, it will not, we presume, be denied, that this important inquiry cannot be entrusted to fitter hands than those of the Committee who have earned so much esteem by that which they have already done.
If the Legislature resolved to undertake in carnest the great work of providing for the whole people the means of education, the course which, under the guidance of reason, it would be sure to pursue, would be to appoint a Committee to deliberate, and to draw up, after full consideration, a plan, exhibiting the best possible combination of means for the attainment of the end. If this would be the course which it would pursue, even in a case in which it had no previous committee whose fitness was tried, and which already had acquired experience, and a large stock of knowledge of that precise description which the occasion required, we need not say what is the course pointed out to it in the present instance, by every consideration both of policy and of reason.
But beside these great and commanding inducements, there are reasons which, even for the sake of decency, the House of Commons, we hope, will not overlook. After the manner in which the commission of inquiry has been formed, and after it has been deprived of all the powers of efficient inquiry, nothing less than a Committee of the House of Commons, under which it may appear to act, with whose powers it will appear to be invested, and which will be able, on many occasions, to supply its deficiencies, can either make the inquiry efficient, or give any kind of security to the public that it was intended that it should be so. Finally, the House of Commons will not act even with any appearance of consistency, unless the Committee of Education is revived. Who was ever so absurd as to call in a physician, merely to tell that he was labouring under a dangerous disease, and then to dismiss him, before he has time to speak to you about the remedy? Mere absurdity will not account for such a proceeding;-and, if the Committee is not reappointed, it will not be easy to persuade the public, that other motives have not operated than a care for the public good.
ART. XI. Documents connected with the Question of Reform in the Burghs of Scotland. Edinburgh, 1817.
TH HE question, respecting which some material documents have been collected in the publication before us, has lately excited, and still continues to excite, a very lively interest in this part of the kingdom. The Constitutions, or Sets, as they are termed, of our Royal Burghs, which regulate the election of their Magistracy, have been long deemed disgraceful to the country,an exception to its general advancement,-inconsistent with the enlightened principles of its public law,-utterly indefensible upon any views of expediency,-and actually productive of the greatest abuses. About thirty years ago, in particular, the evil, which was almost everywhere acknowledged, having at last attracted the notice of Legislature, inquiries were set on foot, that seemed to promise a beneficial and satisfactory result. But the expectations then raised were soon disappointed by the occurrence of other events, and other questions of infinitely greater moment, which, during a long interval, left most men leisure to feel, and rendered many indisposed to redress, such grievances as we are now to consider. It was natural, however, when the agitation of Europe had subsided, to look homeward, and to think of employing the season of tranquillity in forwarding the great work of domestic improvement. In this situation, several circumstances have recently combined to revive the scheme of Burgh Reform, towards which some progress had formerly been made.
The constitution of Montrose, though not remarkably defective, had given great dissatisfaction to its Burgesses; and a slight alteration it had received, was far from bringing it to correspond with their wishes: So that, when an application to the Privy Council became necessary, owing to the reduction of the election of its Magistrates for 1816, it was thought expedient by all parties to petition, not merely for a Warrant of Election, but also for a Reform of the Set. The petition was granted, the constitution being on that occasion remodelled, and a poll appointed for the election of the new Council and officers. While this measure, which had been adopted by the advice of the Crown lawyers, seemed to indicate, on the part of Government, a very sincere desire to amend the constitution of the Burghs, the prevalence and magnitude of the abuses became. every day more apparent. The affairs of Aberdeen, just about this time, fell into the utmost confusion and embarrassment. That Burgh, which had embarked in speculations of great extent, and contracted enormous debt, was declared insolvent ;
and seventeen members of the Town-Council, who retired in September 1817, frankly ascribed all these misfortunes to the faulty constitution of the Burgh, and the want of an efficient and public control over the Magistrates. Many other towns of less note were undeniably in the same state; and the finances of this city even, notwithstanding its large revenues, were reported to be falling rapidly into a very desperate condition.
It is not to be wondered at, that these, and similar effects of maladministration, on the one hand, joined to the success of the citizens of Montrose, upon the other, should have occasioned a very general sensation, and renewed, with increasing strength, the demand for Burgh Reform, which there now seemed to be some prospect of attaining. But though the old system was in most burghs openly denounced by all the inhabitants and burgesses, with the exception of those who found a direct interest in maintaining it; and though, in many places, the Magistrates themselves, by seconding the Burgesses, declared, in the most disinterested and unequivocal manner, the necessity of remedy, an important change appears to have suddenly taken place in the opinions of Government and its advisers. A poll election, which had been granted in the case of Montrose, has been since refused to Aberdeen; where the magistracy was lately renewed, by a warrant of very questionable legality, addressed to the former Magistrates. This warrant cannot but be regarded as an intimation, that the cause is now less favourably considered; especially since some preparatory steps for a general discussion of the subject met with strong opposition in the House of Commons, even from those who were constrained so far to acknowledge the misgovernment of the Burghs, as to introduce a bill for the purpose of increasing, in some respects, the responsibility of the Magistrates, and for bringing them more easily to account. So feeble an expedient, however, proposed in such circumstances, has not stopt complaints, of which it would be altogether inadequate to remove the grounds; and the denial so strangely hazarded, that any discontent existed here respecting the Burghs, only showed to the people the necessity of demonstrating their sentiments by public resolutions. From all these causes, there has been called forth an expression of opinion very unusual for Scotland, and not less decided than general; and we think it our duty to avail ourselves of some of the materials furnished in the pamphlet before us, for the purpose of stating the nature of the grievances against which remonstrances have been made from so many quarters.
Here it will be proper to guard against any misapprehensions
that may arise from the jealousy with which recent events have made the very word Reform to be viewed, by stating, that the measure to which we would now direct attention, is not immediately or necessarily connected with the great and formidable subject of general Parliamentary Reform. It is no doubt unfortunately true, that, in this part of the island, the representatives of the burghs are not chosen by the inhabitants, or even by the burgesses; and that the Magistrates and Town Council constitute the whole body of electors. But it is no part of the project of Burgh Reform to make any alteration in this respect, however desirable. It is only proposed to amend the constitution of the Town Council and Magistrates, by placing the election of these officers on a more liberal basis, and readmitting the burgesses to the natural enjoyment of their rights, as members of the body corporate. Such a change would, no doubt, ultimately affect the parliamentary representation of the burgh; but the most scrupulous and indiscriminating stickler for establishments cannot, we imagine, pretend that the experiment is accompanied with any hazard, or that the slightest danger could possibly arise to the constitution of the country. We are certainly inclined to think, that the extension of the elective franchise, and the introduction of a much more popular representation than we at present directly or indirectly enjoy, would be of infinite advantage to the people of Scotland; and to this topic we may afterwards recur. But we notice it now, merely for the sake of keeping the two questions distinct, and preventing the consideration of one from being affected by those prejudices that are unhappily peculiar to the other. We have nothing to do here with the constitution of the House of Commons-with the measure of representation-the qualification of electors-or the mode of election. The internal government of the Royal Burghs is the only subject of the following remarks; and, in our opinion, it is impossible to consider their history, and their present situa tion, without acknowledging that there are many reasonable causes of discontent, which ought to be removed by a general and adequate reform.
It is not necessary for our present purpose to engage in any antiquarian research respecting the origin of the Royal Burghs, or to trace their progress with minuteness. It is well known that they are corporate bodies, erected by Royal Charter, or ultimately depending on possession, which is by law referred to Charter; endowed with common property, sometimes to a very large amount; gifted with ample privileges in trade and manufactures; and invested with important jurisdiction. A burgh, with us, is generally an aggregate Corporation, comprehending within it