The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 10/A Letter to a Member of Parliament in Ireland, upon choosing a Speaker










YOU may easily believe I am not at all surprised at what you tell me, since it is but a confirmation of my own conjecture that I sent you last week, and made you my reproaches upon at a venture. It looks exceedingly strange, yet I believe it to be a great truth, that in order to carry a point in your house, the two following circumstances are of great advantage: first, to have an ill cause; and, secondly, to be a minority. For both these circumstances, are extremely apt to invite men, to make them assiduous in their attendance, watchful of opportunities, zealous for gaining over proselytes, and often successful; which is not to be wondered at, when favour and interest are on the side of their opinion. Whereas, on the contrary, a majority with a good cause are negligent and supine. They think it sufficient to declare themselves upon opinion in favour of their party; but, sailing against the tide of favour and preferment, they are easily scattered and driven back. In short, they want a common principle to cement, and motive to spirit them: for, the bare acting upon a principle from the dictates of a good conscience, or prospect of serving the publick, will not go very far under the present dispositions of mankind. This was amply verified last session of parliament, upon occasion of the money bill, the merits of which I shall not pretend to examine. It is enough, that upon the first news of its transmission hither, in the form in which it afterward appeared, the members, upon discourse with their friends, seemed unanimous against it; I mean those of both parties, except a few, who were looked upon as persons ready to go any lengths prescribed them by the court. Yet, with only a weak canvassing among a very few hands, the bill passed, after a full debate, by a very great majority. Yet, I believe, you will hardly attempt persuading me, or any body else, that one man in ten, of those who changed their language, were moved by reasons any way affecting the merits of the cause, but merely through hope, fear, indolence, or good manners. Nay, I have been assured from good hands, that there was still a number sufficient to make a majority against the bill, if they had not apprehended the other side to be secure; and therefore thought it imprudence, by declaring themselves, to disoblige the government to no purpose.

Reflecting upon this, and forty other passages, in the several houses of commons since the Revolution, makes me apt to think, there is nothing a chief governor can be commanded to attempt here, wherein he may not succeed, with a very competent share of address, and with such assistance, as he will always find ready at his devotion. And therefore I repeat what I said at first, that I am not at all surprised at what you tell me. For, if there had been the least spark of publick spirit left, those who wished well to their country, and its constitution in church and state, should, upon the first news of the late speaker's promotion (and you and I know it might have been done a great deal sooner) have immediately gone together, and consulted about the fittest person to succeed him. But, by all I can comprehend, you have been so far from proceeding thus, that it hardly ever came into any of your heads. And the reason you give, is the worst in the world: That none offered themselves, and you knew not whom to pitch upon. It seems, however, the other party was more resolved, or at least not so modest: for, you say, your vote is engaged against your opinion, and several gentlemen in my neighbourhood tell me the same story of themselves. This, I confess, is of an unusual strain, and a good many steps below any condescensions a court will, I hope, ever require from you. I shall not trouble myself to inquire who is the person, for whom you and others are engaged, or whether there be more candidates from that side than one. You tell me nothing of either; and I never thought it worth the question to any body else. But, in so weighty an affair, and against your judgment, I cannot look upon you as irrecoverably determined. Therefore I desire you will give me leave to reason with you a little upon the subject; lest your compliance, or inadvertency, should put you upon what you may have cause to repent of, as long as you live.

You know very well, the great business of the high flying whigs, at this juncture, is, to endeavour a repeal of the test clause. You know likewise that the moderate men, both of high and low church, profess to be wholly averse from this design, as thinking it beneath the policy of common gardeners, to cut down the only hedge that shelters from the north. Now I will put the case: If the person to whom you have promised your vote, be one, of whom you have the least apprehension, that he will promote or assent to the repealing of that clause, whether it be decent or proper he should be the mouth of an assembly, whereof a very great majority pretend to abhor his opinion! Can a body, whose mouth and heart must go so contrariwise, ever act with sincerity, or hardly with consistency? Such a man is no proper vehicle to retain or convey the sense of the house, which, in so many points of the greatest moment, will be directly contrary to his. It is full as absurd, as to prefer a man to a bishoprick, who denies revealed religion. But it may possibly be a great deal worse. What if the person, you design to vote into that important post, should not only be a declared enemy of the sacramental test, but should prove to be a solicitor, and encourager, or even a penner of addresses to complain of it? Do you think it so indifferent a thing, that a promise of course, the effect of compliance, importunity, shame of refusing, or any the like motive, shall oblige you past the power of retracting?

Perhaps you will tell me, as some have already had the weakness, that it is of little importance to either party, to have a speaker of their side, his business being only to take the sense of the house, and report it; that you often, at committees, put an able speaker into the chair, on purpose to prevent him from stopping a bill. Why, if it were no more than this, I believe I should hardly choose even among my footmen, such a one to deliver a message, whose interest and opinion led him to wish it might miscarry. But I remember to have heard colonel Birch of Herefordshire say, "That he was a very sorry speaker, whose single vote was not better than fifty common ones." I am sure it is reckoned in England, the first great test of the prevalency of either party in the house. Sir Thomas Lyttelton thought that a house of commons with a stinking breath (supposing the speaker to be the mouth) would go near to infect every thing within the walls, and a great deal without. It is the smallest part of an able speaker's business what he performs in the house; at least if he be in with the court, when it is hard to say, how many converts may be made, in a circle of dinners or private cabals. And you and I easily call to mind a gentleman in that station in England, who, by his own arts, and personal credit, was able to draw over a majority, and change the whole power of a prevailing side, in a nice juncture of affairs, and make a parliament expire in one party, who had lived in another.

I am far from an inclination to multiply party causes; but surely the best of us, can with very ill grace make that an objection, who has not been so nice in matters of much less importance. Yet I have heard some persons of both sides gravely deliver themselves in this manner: "Why should we make the choosing of a speaker a party cause? Let us fix upon one, who is well versed in the practices and methods of parliament." And I believe, there are too many who would talk at the same rate, if the question were not only about abolishing the sacramental test, but the sacrament itself.

But, suppose the principles of the most artful speaker would have no influence, either to obtain, or obstruct any point in parliament; who can answer what effects such a choice may produce without doors? It is obvious how such a matter serves to raise the spirits and hopes of the dissenters, and their high flying advocates: what lengths they run, what conclusions they form, and what hopes they entertain. Do they hear of a new friend in office? that is encouragement enough to practise the city, against the opinion of a majority, into an address to the queen for repealing the sacramental test; or issue out their orders to the next fanatick parson, to furbish up his old sermons, and preach and print new ones directly against episcopacy. I would lay a good wager, that if the choice of a new speaker, succeeds exactly to their liking, we shall see it soon followed by many new attempts, either in the form of pamphlet, sermon, or address, to the same, or perhaps more dangerous purposes.

Supposing the speaker's office to be only an employment of profit and honour, and a step to a better; since it is in your own gift, will you not choose to bestow it upon some person, whose principles the majority of you pretends to approve, if it were only to be sure of a worthy man hereafter, in a high station, on the bench, or at the bar?

I confess, if it were a thing possible to be compassed, it would seem most reasonable, to fill the chair with some person, who would be entirely devoted to neither party: but, since there are so few of that character, and those either unqualified or unfriended, I cannot see how a majority will answer it to their reputation, to be so ill provided of able persons, that they must have recourse to their adversaries for a leader; a proceeding, of which I never met with above one example, and even that succeeded but ill, though it was recommended by an oracle; which advised some city in Greece to beg a general from their enemies, who, in scorn, sent them either a fiddler or a poet, I have forgotten which; and so much I remember, that his conduct was such, that they soon grew weary of him.

You pretend to be heartily resolved against repealing the sacramental test; yet at the same time, give the only great employment you have to dispose of, to a person, who will take that test against stomach, (by which word I understand many a man's conscience) who earnestly wishes it repealed, and will endeavour it to the utmost of his power; so that the first action after you meet, will be a sort of contravention to that test: and will any body go farther than your practise, to judge of your principles?

And now I am upon this subject, I cannot conclude, without saying something to a very popular argument against that sacramental test, which may be apt to shake many of those, who would otherwise wish well enough to it. They say, it was a new hardship put upon the dissenters, without any provocation; and, it is plain, could be no way necessary, because we had peaceably lived together so long without it. They add some other circumstances, of the arts by which it was obtained, and the person by whom it was inserted. Surely such people do not consider, that the penal laws against dissenters, were made wholly ineffectual, by the connivance and mercy of the government; so that all employments of the state, lay as open to them as they did to the best and most legal subjects. And what progress they would have made, by the advantages of a lace conjunction, is obvious to imagine; which I take to be a full answer to that objection.

I remember, upon the transmission of that bill with the test-clause inserted, the dissenters and their partizans, among other topicks, spoke much of the good effects produced by the lenity of the government: that the presbyterians were grown very inconsiderable in their number and quality, and would daily come into the church, if we did not fright them from it by new severities. When the act was passed, they presently changed their style, and raised a clamour through both kingdoms, of the great numbers of considerable gentry who were laid aside, and could no longer serve their queen and country; which hyperbolical way of reckoning, when it came to be melted down into truth, amounted to about fifteen country justices, most of them of the lowest size, for estate, quality, or understanding. However, this puts me in mind of a passage told me by a great man, although I know not whether it be any where recorded: That a complaint was made to the king and council of Sweden, of a prodigious swarm of Scots, who, under the condition of pedlars, infested that kingdom to such a degree, as, if not suddenly prevented, might in time prove dangerous to the state, by joining with any discontented party. Meanwhile the Scots, by their agents, placed a good sum of money, to engage the officers of the prime minister in their behalf; who, in order to their defence, told the council, "He was assured they were but a few inconsiderable people, that lived honestly and poorly, and were not of any consequence." Their enemies offered to prove the contrary: whereupon an order was made to take their numbers, which was found to amount, as I remember, to about thirty thousand. The affair was again brought before the council, and great reproaches made to the first minister for his ill computation; who, presently taking the other handle, said, "He had reason to believe, the number yet greater than what was returned;" and then gravely offered to the king's consideration, "Whether it was safe to render desperate so great a body of able men, who had little to lose, and whom any hard treatment, would only serve to unite into a power capable of disturbing, if not destroying, the peace of the kingdom." And so they were suffered to continue.