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ARGUMENTS ABOUT THE ALTERATION
OF TRIENNIAL ELECTIONS OF PARLIAMENT. IN A LETTER TO A FRIEND IN THE COUNTRY.1
Your last letter expresses your great concern and fears about the design now on foot for the alteration of the act for the frequent meeting and calling of parliaments in one particular, that is, the changing the term for elections of parliament from three to more years; and at the same time gives me an account of the several objections which make the greatest noise around you upon that subject. The same fears, and the same objections, I find to be very common, and very warmly propagated in all conversation here. in town.
For myself, I acknowledge that it is with me in this case as it is in many others of importance; the first surprise gave me the like uneasiness to what you express. But I am very well satisfied, that the most likely way to cure that uneasiness is to debate the matter as friends; and to examine whether that surprise be the force of mere prejudice, or of good judgment. And for this I am very sure I am, in one respect, at least, well qualified, that as to my own private advantage, or interest, it is not of the least importance to me whether the parliament may, with the consent of the king, sit three years, or seven years, or twenty years. I have no designs nor views; no piques nor resentments, to incline me one way or other: and therefore if you will put yourself in the same posture of mind, if you please, enter upon this subject.
In all debates of this nature there are two principal points, which will comprehend under them all other particulars.
1 This little known but interesting political essay was first printed in Boyer's Political State, April, 1716, where it is ascribed to Addison. It appears never to have been reprinted, till included in that scarce duodecimo volume, "Addison's Miscellaneous Works," London, Cogan, 1750, and as far as I can discover is to be found nowhere else. Attention has recently been drawn to it by James Crossley, Esq., of Manchester, in a very ingenious and convincing paper in Notes and Queries, vol. v. p. 577, to which the curious reader is referred.
The one is, whether the thing proposed be lawful, with regard to the nature of our constitution? The other is, whether it be expedient, or useful, to the good ends which ought always to be in the view of those who make laws?
The lawfulness of the thing cannot be denied by any persons, though never so great enemies to the doing it. Nor do I find, amongst all the topics employed against it, that anything of moment is urged against the right or authority of the supreme legislature to do it. It is no more a fundamental of our constitution that a new parliament must be summoned every three years than at any other interval. It is equally just, as far as right and authority are concerned, for the King, Lords, and Commons to fix it for one term, as for another. And if it were not out of their right to make that great alteration, which fixed it for three years, it certainly cannot be out of their right to make a much less alteration, by fixing it once more to another term.
As to the sense and mind of the electors, the truth of the matter is this: they are supposed to have no other view in their choice of persons than to send such to parliament as they think best qualified, by their estates, wisdom, and in tegrity, to do whatever is to be done in parliament, without regard to the time of their sitting there. And there is no other end in the electing representatives, but that they, from time to time, may make and alter laws, in such manner as best to consult and promote the good of the whole community. The very election is, and must be, supposed to empower the elected persons faithfully and impartially to do everything that is necessary, or expedient, for the preservation and establishment of the common interest, whether it falls in with the humours or opinions of the electors or not. This brings us to the only point to be considered, when any alteration of a former changeable law is proposed; and that is, whether (all things considered) it be expedient and useful?
And of this, as far as the time past is concerned, experience is the best judge. When a law hath been long tried, and the consequences and effects of it in a nation have been many years open and sensible, it requires but little thought to judge whether it be best to continue it in every respect as it is, or to model it anew. And now, if you please, we will consider the effect the triennial elections have had amongst ourselves at home; and then it will be proper to
think of the effect they have had, and still must naturally have, abroad.
At home, the least evil is, that the tempers and spirits of men are put into a ferment, and boiled up into a rage, which never is cooled, because the returns at which this rage is useful to some persons or other are so quick that it is not politic in such men to let it cease; nor perhaps possible for them to make it cease, even if they were willing to do so. Riots, tumults, mutual abuses, odious nick-names, personal affronts, are kept alive and warm, from three year to three year, by men of design and dexterity in the management of other men's passions; improved and heightened by such quick returns. These are what we see and feel of the effects of it upon the temper of a nation, that, if ever it is ruined, can be ruined by nothing but its divided affections and interests.
Besides this, there could not be contrived a method more effectual to the debauchery of the subjects' morals, not only in one but in all respects, than this hath proved. Bribery, known and open, (without a remedy,) which supposeth a corruption of mind, and naturally leads to an insensibility to everything great and honourable; and by degrees to a perfect disregard to everything sacred and useful. A scene of bestial intemperance, encouraged and paid for in many places, for fear friendship should cool, if it be not kept hot by such methods. And the crimes that often accompany this need not be mentioned. The least is a general disposition in men to leave the thoughts of diligence and industry in their business, for the more agreeable entertainments of idleness, and a luxurious beggary.
I do not suppose or argue that this alteration of the term will put a full stop to this corruption of morals, either as to bribery, or to the other instances named. But it is certain that, the returns being not so quick, the tempers of men must, in the nature of things, become much more easy to one another by degrees; which is itself an advantage greatly to be valued. It is certain that the scent of bribery cannot be so strong, nor the avowal of it so constant, when there is such an intermission. And as for that never-ceasing current of debauchery, requisite for so frequent elections, it must be this way interrupted; and, in a good degree, broken into. The crimes often accompanying it must diminish: and the men, brought
up to laborious callings, must exchange their idleness for industry; and become much more useful to their families and the public.
I mention not the ruin both of the estates and morals of gentlemen, so frequently candidates at our elections: they know best how well they can bear such evils; and whether it tends to make themselves better patriots to their country, or better fathers to their own families, that they are to make their way by so quick returns of bribery and corruption.
We have hitherto considered the ill effect of these evil consequences at home, supposing them to terminate in the concerns of private men. But this supposition is not to be continued. For you will see presently that all these things have a visible influence upon the public. The general topic amongst the adversaries of this alteration, as well those who hate as those who love liberty, truly so called, is the seeming advantage of this part of the act to that great and lovely good. I call it seeming; because, as it never was designed at first, by many of the most zealous promoters of it, for anything but to cramp the endeavours of a good prince for the settling our liberties; so it hath never had any better lasting effect that way, than they designed it should have; but, as I think, visibly tends in its consequences to the destruction of our legal liberties. The reason is short and plain. Nothing in the world can make men more supinely negligent of the public interest, or dispose them more to receive their chains, than a state of bribery, corruption, debauchery, and idleness. And this is the constant state of most of our electors, merely through the quick returns and the pleasing prospect of elections. The more lasting and uninterrupted this state is, the less sensible are they of the evils it inclines them to. They are by degrees brought to think the highest bidder to have the best right to their votes; and will act in time agreeably to that thought, whether the money be offered them from abroad or at home. The little interruption to their vices and their expectations, is the thing which makes the danger so great: and this is owing to the frequent returns of elections, at so short, certain periods of time.
Nor doth this argument touch the electors only, but the elected also, to a very great degree. For as long as human nature is capable of corruption; as long as there is a probability, or even a possibility, of any part of mankind being
induced to sell their country and their posterity, for a present advantage to themselves; so long it is evident to a demonstration, that gentlemen, who have by so frequent returns of chargeable elections exhausted their estate and impoverished their families, will be much more likely to seek or to embrace opportunities of re-imbursing themselves, and preventing their own immediate ruin, at the expense of the public liberty and security; much more likely, I say, to act this part, than if the term were made longer; and if by that means they might hope to be at rest from expense for a much longer time.
Add to this, that personal and party revenge, which is, of all others, the most strong principle in the bulk of men, never fails to actuate both the candidates and the electors. If ever our ruin be effected, it is too probable this will be the great engine of it. And let every one judge, whether anything could be devised more likely, either to raise, or actuate, or preserve that spirit in its keenness and bitterness, than the triennial returns of elections, and the expectation of them or whether anything can give us any respite from that spirit, and its fatal consequences, but an alteration of those returns to a longer distance.
There is another consideration very well worth mentioning on this subject, which is the distribution of justice in the countries. It is manifest that nothing hath diverted the course of it from its proper current so much as the party views of men, kept up to such a degree by the expected returns of frequent elections; and that nothing can recall it again but some rest from those views which turned it aside. Men will not have the temptation, and therefore not the inclination, either to suspend justice or to act contrary to it, in many of those instances in which now their constant hopes or fears, actuated by the frequency of elections, are too apt to draw them aside. Besides that, when some intermission is given to the heats and quarrels of neighbours, the occasions and opportunities of partiality or injustice must, in good measure, cease.
The effects which I have now gone over are but too certain, as they are the natural product of the passions of men in a divided nation; and they are evils which will be, by degrees, at least very much abated by the present design.
We have hitherto considered our triennial elections, their