Debate in the Commons on Mr. Wilkes’s Motion for a more equal Representation of  the People in Parliament. March 21 . The order of the day being read,
Mr. Wilkes rose and said:
Mr. Speaker; all wise governments, and well-regulated states, have been particularly careful to mark and correct the various abuses, which a considerable length of time almost necessarily creates. Among these, one of the most striking and important in our country is, the present unfair and inadequate state of the representation of the people of England in parliament. It is now become so partial and unequal from the lapse of time, that I believe almost every gentleman in the House will agree with me in the necessity of its being taken into our most serious consideration, and of our endeavouring to find a remedy for this great and growing evil.
I wish, Sir, my slender abilities were equal to a thorough investigation of this momentous business. Very diligent and well-meant endeavours have not been wanting to trace it from the first origin. The most natural and perfect idea of a free government is, in my mind, that of the people themselves assembling to determine by what laws they chuse to be governed, and to establish the regulations: they think necessary for the protection of their property and liberty against all violence and fraud. Every member of such a community would submit with alacrity to the observance of what had been enacted by himself, and assist with spirit in giving efficacy and vigour to laws and ordinances, which derived all their authority from his own approbation and concurrence. In small inconsiderable states, this mode of legislation has been happily followed, both by ancient and modern times. The extent and populousness of a great empire seems scarcely to admit it without confusion or tumult: and therefore our ancestors, more wise in this than the ancient Romans, adopted the representation of the many by a few, as answering more fully the true ends of government. Rome was enslaved from inattention to this very circumstance, and by one other fatal act, which ought to be a strong warning to the people, even against their own representatives, the leaving power too long in the hands of the same persons, by which the armies of the republic became the armies of Sylla, Pompey and Caesar. When all the burghers of Italy obtained the freedom of Rome, and voted in public assemblies, their multitudes ren-  dered the distinction of the citizen of Rome and the alien impossible. Their assemblies and deliberations became disorderly and tumultuous. Unprincipled and ambitious men found out the secret of turning them to the ruin of the Roman liberty and commonwealth. Among us this evil is avoided by representation, and yet the justice of the principle is preserved. Every Englishman is supposed to be present in parliament, either in person, or by a deputy chosen by himself, and therefore the resolution of parliament is taken to be the resolution of every individual, and to give to the public the consent and approbation of every free agent of the community.
According to the first formation of this excellent constitution, so long and so justly our greatest boast and best inheritance, we find that the people thus took care no laws should be enacted, no taxes levied, but by their consent, expressed by their representatives in the great council of the nation. The mode of representation in ancient times being tolerably adequate and proportionate, the sense of the people was known by that of parliament, their share of power in the legislature being preserved, and founded in equal justice. At present it is become insufficient, partial, and unjust.
From so pleasing a view as that of the equal power, which our ancestors had, with great wisdom and care, modelled for the Commons of this realm, the present scene gives us not very venerable ruins of that majestic and beautiful fabric, the English constitution. As the whole seems in disorder and confusion, all the former union and harmony of the parts are lost or destroyed. It appears, Sir, from the writs remaining in the King’s remembrancer’s office in the exchequer, that no less than 22 towns sent members to the parliament in the 23rd, 25th, and 26th of Edward 1, which have long ceased to be represented. The names of some of them are scarcely known to us, such as those of Canebrig and Bamburg in Northumberland, Pershore and Brem in Worcestershire, Jarvall and Tykhull in Yorkshire. What a happy fate, Sir, has attended the boroughs of Gatton and Old Sarum, of which, although ipsæ periêre ruinæ, the names are familiar to us, the clerk regularly calls them over, and four respectable gentlemen represent their departed greatness, as the knights at a coronation represent Aquitaine and Normandy! The little  town of Banbury, ‘petite ville, grand renom,’ as Rabelais says of Chinon, has, I believe, only 17 electors, yet gives us in its representative, what is of the utmost importance to the majority here, a first lord of the Treasury, and a chancellor of the Exchequer. Its influence and weight on a division, I have often seen overpower the united force of the members for London, Bristol, and several of the most populous counties. East Grinstead too, I think, has only about 30 electors, yet gives a seat among us to that brave, heroic lord (George Germaine) at the head of a great civil department, now very military, who has fully determined to conquer America—but not in Germany! It is not, Sir, my purpose to weary the patience of the House by the researches of an antiquary into the ancient state of our representation, and its variations at different periods. I shall only remark shortly on what passed in the reign of Henry 6, and some of his successors. In that reign, sir John Fortescue, his chancellor, observed that the House of Commons consisted of more than 300 chosen men; various alterations were made by succeeding kings till James 2. No change has happened since that period. Great abuses, it must be owned, contrary to the primary ideas of the English constitution, were committed by our former princes, in giving the right of representation to several paltry boroughs, because the places were poor, and dependent on them, or on a favourite overgrown peer. The land marks of the constitution have often been removed. The marked partiality for Cornwall, which single county still sends, within one, as many members as the whole kingdom of Scotland, is striking. It arose from yielding to the crown in tin and lands a larger hereditary revenue than any other English county, as well as from the duchy being in the crown, and giving an amazing command and influence. By such abuses of our princes the constitution was wounded in its most vital part. Henry 8 restored two members, Edward 6 twenty; queen Mary four, queen Elizabeth twelve, James 1 sixteen, Charles 1 eighteen, in all seventy-two. The alterations by creation in the same period were more considerable, for Henry 8 created thirty-three, Edward 6 twenty-eight, queen Mary seventeen, queen Elizabeth forty-eight, James 1 eleven; in all 173. Charles 1 made no new creation of this kind. Charles 2 added two for the county, and two for the  city of Durham, and two for Newark on Trent. This House is at this hour composed of the same representation it was at his demise, notwithstanding the many and important changes which have since happened. It becomes us therefore to enquire, whether the sense of parliament can be now, on solid grounds, from the present representation, said to be the sense of the nation, as in the time of our forefathers. I am satisfied, Sir, the sentiments of the people cannot be justly known at this time from the resolutions of a parliament, composed as the present is, even though no undue influence was practised after the return of the members to the House, even supposing for a moment the influence of all the baneful arts of corruption to be suspended, which, for a moment, I believe, they have not been, under the present profligate administration. Let us examine, Sir, with exactness and candour, if the representation is fair and perfect; let us consider of what the efficient parts of this House are composed, and what proportion they bear, on the large scale, to the body of the people of England, who are supposed to be represented.
The southern part of this island, to which I now confine my ideas, consists of about five millions of people, according to the most received calculation. I will state by what numbers the majority of this House is elected, and I suppose the largest number present of any recorded in our Journals, which was in the famous year 1741. In that year the three largest divisions appear on our Journals. The first is that of the 21st of January, when the numbers were 253 to 250; the second on the 28th of the same month, 236 to 235; the third on the 9th of March, 244 to 243. In these divisions the members for Scotland are included; but I will state my calculations only for England, because it gives the argument more force. The division therefore, I adopt, is that of January 21. The number of members present on that day were 503. Let me, however, suppose the number of 254 to be the majority of members, who will ever be able to attend in their places. I state it high, from the accidents of sickness, service in foreign parts, travelling and necessary avocations. From the majority of electors only in the boroughs, which return members to this House, it has been demonstrated, that this number of 254 is elected by no more than 5,723 persons, generally the inhabitants of Cornish, and other very insignificant bo-  roughs, perhaps by not the most respectable part of the community. Is our sovereign, then, to learn the sense of his whole people from these few persons? Are these the men to give laws to this vast empire, and to tax this wealthy nation? I do not mention all the tedious calculations, because gentlemen may find them at length in the works of the incomparable Dr. Price, in Postlethwaite, and in Burgh’s Political Disquisitions. Figures afford the clearest demonstration, incapable of cavil or sophistry. Since Burgh’s calculations only one alteration has happened. I allude to the borough of Shoreham in Sussex. By the Act of 1771, all the freeholders of 40s. per annum in the neighbouring rape or hundred of Bramber are admitted to vote for that borough; but many of the old electors were disfranchised. It appears likewise, that 56 of our members are elected by only 364 persons. Lord Chancellor Talbot supposed that the majority of this House was elected by 56,000 persons, and he exclaimed against the injustice of that idea. More accurate calculations than his lordship’s, and the unerring rules of political arithmetic, have shewn the injustice to be vastly beyond what his lordship even suspected.
When we consider, Sir, that the most important powers of this House, the levying taxes on, and enacting laws for, five millions of persons, is thus usurped and unconstitutionally exercised by the small number I have mentioned, it becomes our duty to restore to the people their clear rights, their original share in the legislature. The ancient representation of this kingdom, we find, was founded by our ancestors in justice, wisdom, and equality. The present state of it would be continued by us in folly, obstinacy, and injustice.
This evil has been complained of by tome of the wisest patriots our country has produced. I shall beg leave to give that close reasoner Mr. Locke’s ideas in his own words. He says, in the treatise on Civil Government, “Things not always changing equally, and private interest often keeping up customs and privileges, when the reasons of them are ceased, it often comes to pass, that in governments, where part of the legislative consists of representatives chosen by the people, that in tract of time this representation becomes very unequal and disproportionate to the reasons it was at first established upon. To what gross absurdities the following of a custom, when reason has left it, may  lead, we may be satisfied, when we see the bare name of a town, of which there remains not so much as the ruins, where scarce so much housing as a sheep-cote, or more inhabitants than a shepherd, is to be found, sends as many representatives to the grand assembly of law-makers, as a whole county, numerous in people, and powerful in riches. This strangers stand amazed at, and every one must confess, needs a remedy.” After so great an authority as that of Mr. Locke, I shall not be treated on this occasion as a mere visionary; and the propriety of the motion I shall have the honour of submitting to the House, will scarcely be disputed. Even the members for such places as Old Sarum and Gatton, who, I may venture to say at present stant nominis umbrae, will, I am persuaded, have too much candour to complain of the right of their few constituents, if indeed they have constituents, if they are not self-created, self-elected, self-existent, of this pretended right being transferred to the county, while the rich and populous manufacturing towns of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, and others, may have at least an equitable share in the formation of those laws by which they are governed. My idea, Sir, in this case, as to the wretched and depopulated towns and boroughs in general, I freely own, is amputation. I say with Horace, “Inutiles ramos amputans, feliciores inserit.”
This is not, Sir, the first attempt of the kind to correct, although in an inconsiderable degree, this growing evil. Proceedings of a similar nature were had among us above a century past. The clerk will read from our Journals what passed on the 26th of March, 1668, on a Bill to enable the county palatine of Durham to send two knights for the county, and two citizens for the city of Durham. [The Clerk reads.] In a book of authority, Anchitell Grey’s Debates, we have a more particular account of what passed in the House on that occasion. He says, that “Sir Thomas Meres moved, that the shires may have an increase of knights, and that some of the small boroughs, where there are but few electors, may be taken away, and a Bill for that purpose.” We find afterwards, “on a division, the Bill was rejected, 65 to 50.” This division, however, alludes only to the Bill then before the House, respecting the county and city of Durham. I desire to add the few remarkable words of sir Thomas Strickland  in this debate, because I have not seen them quoted on the late important American questions. “The county palatine of Durham was never taxed in parliament by ancient privilege before king James’s time, and so needed no representatives; but now being taxed, it is but reasonable they should have.” Such sentiments, Sir, were promulgated in this House even so long ago as the reign of Charles 2.
I am aware, Sir, that the power, de jure, of the legislature to disfranchise a number of boroughs, upon the general grounds of improving the constitution, has been doubted; and gentlemen will ask, whether a power is lodged in the representative to destroy his immediate constituent? Such a question is best answered by another. How originated the right, and upon what ground was it at first granted? Old Sarum and Gatton, for instance, were populous towns, and therefore the right of representation was first given them. They are now desolate, and of consequence ought not to retain a privilege, which they acquired only by their extent and populousness. We ought in every thing, as far as we can, to make the theory and practice of the constitution coincide. The supreme legislative body of a state must surely have this power inherent in itself. It was de facto lately exercised to its full extent by parliament in the case of Shoreham with universal approbation, for near a hundred corrupt voters were disfranchised, and about twice that number of freeholders admitted from the county of Sussex.
It will be objected, I foresee, that a time of perfect calm and peace throughout this vast empire is the most proper to propose internal regulations of this importance; and that, while intestine discord rages in the whole northern continent of America, our attention ought to be fixed upon that most alarming object, and all our efforts employed to extinguish the devouring flame of a civil war. In my opinion, Sir, the American war is in this truly critical aera one of the strongest arguments for the regulation of our representation, which I now submit to the House. During the rest of our lives, likewise, I may venture to prophesy, America will be the leading feature of this age. In our late disputes with the Americans, we have always taken it for granted, that the people of England justified all the iniquitous, cruel, arbitrary, and mad proceedings of administration, because they had the approbation of the  majority of this House. The absurdity of such an argument is apparent, for the majority of this House we know speak only the sense of 5,723 persons, even supposing, according to the laudable constitutional custom of our ancestors, that the constituent had been consulted on this great national point, as he ought to have been. We have seen in what manner the acquiescence of a majority here is obtained. The people in the southern part of this island amount to upwards of five millions. The sense, therefore, of five millions cannot be ascertained by the opinion of not 6,000, even supposing it had been collected. The Americans with great reason insist, that the present war is carried on contrary to the sense of the nation, by a ministerial junto, and an arbitrary faction, equally hostile to the rights of Englishmen, and the claims of Americans. The various addresses to the throne from most numerous bodies, praying that the sword may be returned to the scabbard, and all hostilities cease, confirm this assertion. The capital of our country has repeatedly declared, by various public acts, its abhorrence of the present unnatural civil war, begun on principles subversive of our constitution. Our history furnishes frequent instances of the sense of parliament running directly counter to the sense of the nation. It was notoriously of late the case in the business of the Middlesex election. I believe the fact to be equally certain in the grand American dispute, at least as to the actual hostilities now carrying on against our brethren and fellow subject?. The proposition before us will bring the case to an issue; and from a fair and equal representation of the people, America may at length distinguish the real sentiments of freemen and Englishmen.
I do not mean, Sir, at this time, to go into a tedious detail of all the various proposals which have been made for redressing this irregularity in the representation of the people. I will not intrude on the indulgence of the House, which I have always found favourable and encouraging. When the Bill is brought in, and sent to a committee, it will be the proper time to examine all the minutiae of this great plan, and to determine on the propriety of what ought now to be done, and to consider what formerly was actually accomplished. The Journals of Cromwell’s parliaments prove that a more equal representation was settled, and carried by him into exe  cution. That wonderful, comprehensive mind embraced the whole of this powerful empire. Ireland was put on a par with Scotland. Each kingdom sent 30 members to a parliament, which consisted likewise of 400 from England and Wales. It was to be triennial. Our colonies were then a speck on the face of the globe; now they cover half the new world. I will at this time, Sir, only throw out general ideas, that every free agent in this kingdom should, in my wish, be represented in parliament; that the metropolis, which contains in itself a 9th part of the people, and the counties of Middlesex, York, and others, which so greatly abound with inhabitants, should receive an increase in their representation; that the mean, and insignificant boroughs, so emphatically styled ” the rotten part of our constitution,” should be lopped off, and the electors in them thrown into the counties; and the rich, populous, trading towns, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, and others, be permitted to send deputies to the great council of the nation.
The disfranchising of the mean, venal, and dependent boroughs would be laying the axe to the root of corruption and treasury influence, as well as aristocratical tyranny. We ought equally to guard against those, who sell themselves, or whose lords sell them. Burgage tenures, and private property in a share of the legislature, are monstrous absurdities in a free state, as well as an insult on common sense. I wish, Sir, an English parliament to speak the free, unbiassed sense of the body of the English people, and of every man among us, of each individual, who may justly be supposed to be comprehended in a fair majority. The meanest mechanic, the poorest peasant and daylabourer, has important rights respecting his personal liberty, that of his wife and children, his property, however inconsiderable, his wages, his earnings, the very price and value of each day’s hard labour, which are in many trades and manufactures regulated by the power of parliament. Every law relative to marriage, to the protection of a wife, sister, or daughter, against violence and brutal lust, to every contract or agreement with a rapacious or unjust master, is of importance to the manufacturer, the cottager, the servant, as well as to the rich subjects of the state. Some share therefore in the power of making those laws, which deeply interest them,  and to which they are expected to pay obedience, should be reserved even to this inferior, but most useful, set of men in the community. We ought always to remember this important truth, acknowledged by every free state, that all government is instituted for the good of the mass of the people to be governed; that they are the original fountain of power, and even of revenue, and in all events the last resource.
The various instances of partial injustice throughout this kingdom will likewise become the proper subjects of enquiry in the course of the Bill before the committee. Of this nature are the many freeholds in the city of London, which are not represented in this House. These freeholds being within the particular jurisdiction of the city, are excluded from giving a vote in the county of Middlesex, and by act of parliament only liverymen can vote for the representatives of the city of London. These, and other particulars, I leave. I mention them now, only to shew the necessity of a new regulation of the representation of this kingdom.
My enquiries, Sir, are confined to the southern part of the land. Scotland I leave to the care of its own careful and prudent sons. I hope they will spare a few moments from the management of the arduous affairs of England and America, which are now solely entrusted to their wisdom, and at present so much engross their time, to attend to the state of representation among their own people, if they have not all emigrated to this warmer and more fruitful climate. I am almost afraid the 45 Scottish gentlemen among us represent themselves. Perhaps in my plan for the improvement of the representation of the inhabitants of England, almost all the natives of Scotland may at this time be included. I shall only remark, that the proportion of representation between the two countries cannot be changed. In the 22nd article of the treaty of Union, 45 is to be the proportion of the representative body in the parliament of Great-Britain for the northern part of this island. To increase the members for England and Wales beyond the number, of which the English parliament consisted at the period of that treaty in 1706, would be a breach of public faith, and a violation of a solemn treaty between two independent states. My proposition has for its basis the preservation of that compact, the proportional share of each kingdom in the legislative body re-  maining exactly according to its present establishment.
The monstrous injustice and glaring partiality of the present representation of the Commons of England has been fully stated, and is, I believe, almost universally acknowledged, as well as the necessity of our recurring to the great leading principle of our free constitution, which declares this House of Parliament to be only a delegated power from the people at large. Policy, no less than justice, calls our attention to this momentous point; and reason, not custom, ought to be our guide in a business of this consequence, where the rights of a free people are materially interested. Without a true representation of the Commons our constitution is essentially defective, our parliament is a delusive name, a mere phantom, and all other remedies to recover the pristine purity of the form of government established by our ancestors would be ineffectual, even the shortening the period of parliaments, and a place and pension Bill, both which I highly approve, and think absolutely necessary. I therefore flatter myself, Sir, that I shall have the concurrence of the House with the motion, which I have now the honour of making, “That leave be given to bring in a Bill for a just and equal Representation of the People of England in Parliament.”
Mr. Alderman Bull seconded the motion.
Lord North was very jocular. He said, whatever reason other gentlemen had to complain, he imagined the hon. mover was tolerably well pleased with his success in London and Middlesex. He supposed the hon. gentleman was not serious, nor ever meant his proposition should go to a committee. If he should prevail, he assured him, it would cause great discontent; and he would find it no easy task to prevail on those who had an interest in the boroughs, on which he bestowed so many hard names, to sacrifice to ideal schemes of reformation, so beneficial a species of property. His lordship entered into a physical, chirurgical, and political disquisition on the nature and effects of amputations in general, as operating on the body natural and body politic; and shewed how dangerous such experiments have proved, and the risk of overthrowing or dissolving the constitutions such experiments were intended to correct and amend. He thought the proposition could do no good, and might do much harm; and added, that he did not approve of it. 
Mr. Wilkes made a short reply; and the question being put, it passed in the negative, without a division.
from William Cobbett, Cobbett’s parliamentary history of England: from the Norman conquest, in 1066 to the year 1803. AD 1774 - 1777, vol. 18, 1813, 1286-1298