WHEN the Sovereign, supposed to be upon the throne, with the sceptre in his hand, ruling his people, was actually in a strait waistcoat, under the control of keepers, the royal authority being in complete abeyance, some measures were indispensably necessary for the purpose of reviving it. Mr. Pitt, aware of Lord Thurlow's intrigue with Carlton House to retain the Great. Seal in case of a Regency, placed all his confidence in Lord Camden for carrying through his plan, whereby the two Houses were to assert their right to provide as they should think fit for the exercise of the prerogatives of the Crown, and a bill was to be passed, according to the usual forms of the Constitution, appointing the Prince of Wales Regent, under severe restrictions, to disable him, as much as possible, from conferring favours on the political party to which his Royal Highness was attached.
On the 20th of November, the day on which Parliament met after the prorogation, the Chancellor having announced the royal indisposition, Lord Camden moved an adjournment for a fortnight, and that a letter of summons should be written to every Peer, requiring his attendance. In the meanwhile he presided at a meeting of Privy Council, attended by all Privy Councillors of whatever party, at which the King's physicians, being examined, all agreed that he was wholly incapable of meeting Parliament or attending to public business, but differed as to the probability of his recovery. On the appointed day, Lord Camden laid the examinations before the House. When they had been read, he observed,
"The melancholy state of his Majesty's health is sufficiently evinced; and as the physicians cannot give your Lordships any assurance as to the time when he may recover, it is incumbent on the two Houses of Parliament to proceed to make some provision to supply the deficiency in the legislature, and to restore energy to the executive government. Yet, previously to such a necessary and important step, I shall take the liberty of moving for a committee to search for precedents in similar cases. According to rumour, it had been laid down in another place 'that the course of proceeding under such circumstances was prescribed by the common law and the spirit of the constitution, viz. that the heir apparent, being of age, was entitled to assume the legal authority as a matter of right, and to exercise it as long as his Majesty's disability shall continue, as upon a demise of the Crown.' If this be the common law, it is an entire secret to me. I never read or heard of such a doctrine. Those that broached it should have been ready to cite their authorities. They may raise expectations not easily laid, and may involve the country in confusion. The assertion of this doctrine, however, is a strong argument in favour of my motion, for we shall thus have an ample opportunity of considering the precedents on which it rests."
Lord Loughborough mentioned the extraordinary assertion hazarded elsewhere, "that the Prince of Wales, the heir apparent to the throne, has no more right to take upon himself the government during the continuance of the unhappy malady which incapacitates his Majesty than any other individual subject," contending that an elective regency was inconsistent with an hereditary monarchy. Thurlow at this moment thought it convenient to deny the Prince's right, and after a short reply from Lord Camden his motion was carried.t
On the 23rd of December, after the report of the committee, Lord Camden moved the Resolution "That it is the right and duty of the Lords spiritual and temporal, and Commons of Great Britain, now assembled, and lawfully, fully, and freely representing all the estates of the people of this nation, to provide the means of supplying the defect of the personal exercise of the royal authority, arising from his Majesty's indisposition, in such manner as the exigency of the case may appear to them to require." After a long debate, it was carried by a majority of 99 to 66, and was followed by another resolution, moved by Lord Camden, "That it is necessary for the two Houses to determine in what manner the royal assent shall be given to a bill for settling the regency."u
On a subsequent day, he moved "That for the purpose of providing for the exercise of the King's royal authority during the continuance of his Majesty's illness, in such manner and to such extent as the circumstances of the nation may appear to require, it is expedient that, his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, being resident within the realm, be empowered to exercise and administer the royal authority in the name and on the behalf of his Majesty subject to such limitations and exceptions as shall be provided." He thus began: "It is with deep concern that I find a task of such unprecedented weight has devolved upon me. I stand up most reluctantly to address your Lordships on this occasion, feeling every day stronger and stronger reasons to wish to retire from the hurry of business to repose and contemplation. I trust, my Lords, that this is the last act of my political life. I must not shrink from my duty, for the safety of the monarchy and the public tranquillity are at stake." Having recapitulated the proceedings that had been taken since his Majesty's illness began, and the resolutions of the two Houses respecting their right to appoint a Regent with such powers as they might confer upon him, he detailed the plan of regency which the Ministers proposed, explaining and defending the regulations for the custody of the King's person, for preserving the household appointments as they then stood, and for preventing the Regent from creating Peers. He allowed that the Heir Apparent was the fittest person for the two Houses, in their discretion, to select for Regent; but insisted on the propriety of putting him under restrictions while there was any probability of his Majesty being restored to the throne. The objection, that inconvenience might arise from so materially curtailing the power and patronage of the Crown, he answered by observing that. "if the Regent's administration was conducted on good principles, it would meet with general support; and if its measures were unconstitutional, there should be no facility given to carrying them through." Notwithstanding powerful arguments to show that our constitution might suffer serious detriment from the election of a Regent by the two Houses, with such powers as they were pleased to bestow upon him, and from tampering with the prerogatives of the Crown, which were not supposed to be greater than were necessary to carry on the government for the public good, Lord Camden carried his motion by a majority of 94 to 68; but a strong protest was signed by the Duke of York and almost all the Peers who voted in the minority.x
Lord Camden's next speech was respecting the mode in which the Regent should be "elected or appointed." He declared that, "amidst a choice of evils, the proposal of his Majesty's ministers, which he was to explain, appeared to him to be the least objectionable, and most fit to be adopted, because the most reconcileable to the principles [quaere, forms?] of the constitution. He was open to conviction, and was ready to adopt any other which their Lordships might deem preferable; but something must immediately be done to resuscitate the legislature, and to rescue the people from the condition of which they were beginning loudly to complain of being without a government. He was aware that the plan he was to recommend had already been made the subject of much ridicule. 'A phantom!' 'a fiction!' 'a forgery!' and various other contemptuous appellations, had been bestowed upon it. Let those who objected to it in this House show how, otherwise, the constitution could again be put into a state of vigour and activity. The delay that had already taken place had revolted the public mind, and the nation loudly called on Parliament to interpose its authority. But, circumstanced as it at present was, Parliament could not take a single step; without the King, it was a mere headless, inanimate trunk; the royal assent was essential to legislation. The King upon his throne in that House, or by Commissioners appointed under the Great Seal, must sanction their proceedings, which otherwise had no legal operation. The first step to be taken was to open the parliament by the King's authority. The law declared that, in person or by representative, the King must be there, to enable them to proceed as a legislative body. That his Majesty, from illness, could not attend personally, was a fact too well known to be disputed. When the King could not attend personally, the legal and constitutional process was, to issue letters patent under the Great Seal. In the present dilemma, therefore, he recommended that the two Houses should direct letters patent to be issued, under the Great Seal, authorising Commissioners to open parliament in the name of his Majesty. He must use the liberty to say, that those who treated this proposal with ridicule were ignorant of the laws of their country. A 'fiction' it might be termed, but it was a fiction admirably calculated to preserve the constitution, and, by adopting its forms, to secure its substance. Such a commission being indispensable, by whom was it to be ordered? The King's sign-manual, the usual warrant for it, could not be obtained. Would it be said that the Prince of Wales could command the Lord Chancellor to put the Great Seal to the commission? Both Houses had recently resolved that the Heir Apparent has no such right. Would the Lord Chancellor himself venture to do it, of his own accord? Undoubtedly, he would not. The commission must be ordered by some authority, for, being once issued with the Great Seal annexed to it, it commanded implicit obedience, and the law would admit no subsequent inquiry respecting its validity. He was of opinion that it was in the power of the two Houses to direct the Great Seal to be put to the commission, and in their power only. The Great Seal was the high instrument by which the King's fiat was irrevocably given; it was the clavis Regni, the mouth of royal authority, the organ by which the Sovereign spoke his will. Such was its efficacy, that even if the Lord Chancellor, by caprice, put the Great Seal to any commission, it could not afterwards be questioned. In so doing he would be guilty of a misdemeanor, but the Judges must give effect to it.y If an act of parliament receive the royal assent by a commission under the Great Seal, 'Le Roy le voet' being so pronounced, it is added to the statute-book, and becomes the law of the land, which no one may question. Thus the 'phantom' would prove a substantial benefit, and the 'fiction' would end in the reality which all good men desired." His Lordship then went on to explain, and to rely upon, the precedent at the commencement of the reign of Henry VI., when, the Sovereign being an infant of nine months old, the Great Seal was placed in his hand, or his hand was placed on the Great Seal, and it was supposed to be given by him to the Master of the Rolls; whereupon many commissions were sealed by it, and the government was carried on under its authority. He concluded by moving, "That it is expedient and necessary that letters patent for opening the Parliament should pass under the Great Seal."z
At the request of the Duke of York, Lord Camden agreed that the names of the Prince of Wales and of the other princes of the blood should be omitted from the commission, as they all condemned this mode of proceeding, and the motion was carried without a division. Accordingly, on the following day, a commission, under the Great Seal, was produced in the name of his most gracious Majesty George III., by which his Majesty was made to declare, that, "it not being convenient for him to be personally present, he authorised certain Commissioners to open the Parliament in his name, and to declare the causes of Parliament being summoned by him." The Commons attending at the bar of the House of Lords to hear the commission read, the Commissioners declared the causes of the summons to be, "to provide for the care of his Majesty's royal person, and for the administration of the royal authority." The two Houses did not go through the form of agreeing upon an humble address to his Majesty, in answer to his gracious speech by his Commissioners; but the Regency Bill was immediately brought in. "The Phantom" did not a second time appear to make the bill a law; for, after it had passed the Commons, and while it was in committee in the Lords, it was stopped by the King's convalescence; and George III. remained above twenty years on the throne before there was such a recurrence of his malady as to render it necessary to resort to similar proceedings. a
From the course then adopted, and carried through, I presume, it is now to be considered part of our constitution, that if ever, during the natural life of the Sovereign, he is unable, by mental disease, personally to exercise the royal functions, the deficiency is to be supplied by the two Houses of Parliament, who, in their discretion, will probably elect the heir apparent Regent, under such restrictions as they may please to propose, but who may prefer the head of the ruling faction, and at once vest in him all the prerogatives of the Crown. On the two occasions referred to in the reign of George III., the next heir being at enmity with the King and his ministers, this was considered the loyal and courtly doctrine, and, from its apparent advancement of the rights of Parliament, there was no difficulty in casting odium upon those who opposed it: but I must avow that my deliberate opinion coincides with that of Burke, Fox, and Erskine, who pronounced it to be unsupported by any precedent, and to be in accordance with the principles of the Polish, not the English, monarchy. The two Houses of Parliament would be the proper tribunal to pronounce that the Sovereign is unable to act; but then, as if he were naturally, as well as civilly, dead, the next heir ought, as of right, to assume the government as Regent, ever ready to lay it down on the Sovereign's restoration to reason, in the same way as our Lady Victoria would have returned to a private station if, after her accession, there had appeared posthumous issue of William IV. by his Queen. It is easy to point out possible abuses by the next heir as Regent, to the prejudice of the living Sovereign, but there may be greater abuses of the power of election imputed to the two Houses, whereby a change of dynasty might be effected. I conceive, therefore, that the Irish Parliament, in 1789, acted more constitutionally in acknowledging the right of the next heir, in scouting the fiction of a commission, or royal assent, from the insane Sovereign, and in addressing the Prince of Wales to take upon himself the government as Regent.
After the King's recovery, Lord Camden adhered (with one memorable exception) to the resolution he had announced, that, on account of his advanced age, he would no longer take part in the debates of the House of Lords; but he remained in his office, and steadily supported the Administration by his counsels. It has been suggested that, in his extended connection with Mr. Pitt, he abandoned the liberal principles for which he had so long struggled. But this charge is, I think, entirely without foundation. He had been called away to a better state of existence before the commencement of the trials for high treason which disgraced the country in the end of the year 1794, and I am not aware of any measure adopted with his sanction which might not have been brought forward under Lord Chatham or Lord Rockingham. Bishop Watson accuses him of an entire subserviency at this time to the supposed illiberal policy of the Government. "I asked him," says the Bishop, "if he foresaw any danger likely to result to the Church establishment from the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts; he answered at once, 'None whatever; Pitt was wrong in refusing the application of the Dissenters, but he must now be supported.'" I never attach much importance to what is supposed to have fallen from any man in the laxity of private talk; but supposing this reminiscence to be quite correct, and that no qualification or circumstance to vary the effect is forgotten, might not the President of the Council, without sacrificing the Dissenters or his own consistency, hesitate about breaking up the Government on their account, and wait for a more favourable opportunity to do them justice? The Bishop might have been softened by another anecdote which he relates of Lord Camden about the same time: "I remember his saying to me one night when Lord Chancellor Thurlow was speaking, contrary, as I thought, to his conviction, 'There now, I could not do that; he is supporting what he does not believe a word of.'"b
Lord Camden, like many very sincere and steady friends of liberty, was much appalled by the excesses of the French Revolution, and was alarmed lest our free institutions, the growth of ages, and the result of reason and experience, might be endangered by reckless Jacobin innovation. Any expressions which he might use while labouring under such impressions are not to be nicely weighed for the purpose of making out a charge of inconsistency against him. Burke having sent him a copy of his "Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs," received from him the following answer:
"Brighton, August 5, 1791.
"I have received with great pleasure your last publication, which, as it professed to be sent by the author, I determined to read through with the utmost attention, that I might afterwards proportion my thanks to the value of the present.c I have done so, and am ready to declare my perfect concurrence in every part of the argument, from the beginning to the end, and return you my warmest thanks for presenting me with so valuable a performance, though perhaps my acknowledgment of its merit may lose some part of its grace by my being an interested party, as I am, in the success of the doctrine. The commendation of one convert (and I have no doubt there will be many) would be a stronger testimony of its value than the applause of hundreds that needed no conviction. I, for instance, like many others, have always thought myself an old Whig, and hold the same principles with yourself; but I suppose none, or very few of us, ever thought upon the subject with so much correctness, and hardly any would be able to express their thoughts with such clearness, justness, and force of argument. I am therefore, as well as them, better instructed how to instruct others than I was before.
"There is only one passage in your book that gives me the least concern, and that is where you talk of retiring from public business. For though, as a member of the Administration, I might be well enough pleased at the Opposition's losing one of its ablest assistants, yet I shall be sorry to see the Parliament deprived of so strenuous an advocate for the constitution.
"As an old Whig therefore, and not as a minister, give me leave to subscribe myself,
"Your most obliged and obedient servant,
t 21 Parl. Hist. 654-675.
u Ib. 853.
x 27 Parl. Hist 1075-1094. In the course of this debate Lord Camden got into a scrape, in obviating the objection to the suspension of the power of making Peers, by saying, that "on any urgent call for a peerage it might be conferred by Act of Parliament" a proceeding which appeared to their Lordships so unconstitutional and republican, that he was obliged to explain and retract.
y Till repealed by scire facias.
z 27 Parl. Hist. 1123-1133.
a 27 Parl. Hist. 1297. See Parl. Deb. xviii. 830, 1102; ante. vol. i. p. 20.
b Bishop Watson's Memoirs, p. 162.
c I must confess that for conscience sake, I follow just the opposite rule always returning thanks when I have read the title-page.
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