Saturday, December 20, 2008

Votes for Sale: Bribery and Corruption in 18th-Century English Politics

Thanks to Kairos Journal for originally posting this article.

In 1708, Daniel Defoe, best-known as the author of Robinson Crusoe, declared that, having been present at many English elections, he had come to the conclusion that “it is not an impossible thing to debauch this nation into a choice of thieves, knaves, devils, anything, comparatively speaking, by the power of various intoxications.”1 This reference to bribery at election time followed the publication, seven years earlier, of a pamphlet by Defoe exposing the fact that there was a group of traders in the city of London (“stock-jobbers”) whose regular business it was to buy and sell seats in Parliament—the then market price being 1,000 guineas.2 These were publicly advertised for sale in the newspapers.

The purchase of votes inside and outside Parliament had actually started on a systematic scale in the previous century—notably during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685) and continuing into the subsequent reigns of James II (1685-1688) and William and Mary (1688-1702).3 By the early decades of the 18th century, especially during the administration of Britain’s first real prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1721-1742), bribery and corruption were endemic within the British political system. It is famously reported that on one occasion, scanning a gathering of Members of Parliament (MPs), Walpole observed: “All these men have their price.”4

Why should both the electorate and their political representatives have been so easy to bribe in those days? Part of the answer lies in the moral exhaustion and decay that overtook the English governing classes after the bitter and violent religious and constitutional struggles of the 16th and 17th centuries. After years of mutual persecution between Protestants and Catholics; Anglicans and Nonconformists; and Royalists and Parliamentarians, the leading classes of English society longed for nothing more than peace, pleasure, and prosperity. And with an established church which did little to provide Christian teaching,5 they cynically preferred self-advancement to moral principles. At the same time, the British monarchy, no longer able to rule alone without Parliament, had to find means by which to “manage” Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons,6 in order to obtain its support for the smooth operation of government. That meant buying the votes of MPs and even bishops in the House of Lords7 through the distribution of all kinds of jobs and handouts. And the restriction of the franchise to wealthy property owners (rich merchants and the landed gentry) resulted in a very small and hence potentially corruptible electorate: the fewer the voters, the greater the bribes that could be shared out amongst them.

Under this system, government in 18th-century Britain effectively became a joint-stock company in which men invested in the hope of dividends. “Sometimes it was possible to draw up a neat balance-sheet. Thus, the Duke of Chandos spent £14,0008 in four years bribing the King’s [George II] German ministers and one of his mistresses; in return he got a peerage for his father, the Deanery of Carlisle for his brother, and a court position for his son.”9 And whilst in power, apart from securing honors and sinecures totaling about £15,000 a year for his own sons, Walpole also procured for himself a title (Earl of Orford) and a pension of £4,000 a year.10 The great Whig families who supported him accordingly expected and got their “rewards.”

Bribery and corruption were so much part of Walpole’s time in office that one commentator has referred to it as “putrid to the bone.”11 But in the nineteenth century a remarkable change came over the lands as the spreading Christian influence of the great Methodist revival gradually cleansed and renewed British politics of the worst excesses of bribery and corruption, and the British Parliament became known increasingly as a model of decency and decorum.


Quoted in W. H. Lecky, A History of England in the Eighteenth Century, vol. 1 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1883), 398.


Ibid., 397. A guinea was a coin worth 21 shillings (i.e. £1.10), but obviously that sum was worth a great deal more in those days.


For example, see Lecky, 396-397; also Paul Johnson, A History of the English People (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985), 219-220.


J. Wesley Bready, England: Before and After Wesley (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1938), 119.


See ibid., 45-80.


The lower house of the British legislature.


Bready, 120.


Again, a huge sum of money.


Johnson, 220.


Ibid. Not everyone, it should be noted, entered the political game with the same objectives: “Some, like Walpole, sought power for money (as well as for its own sake); others, like the Duke of Newcastle, spent money to acquire power. High office therefore left men very much poorer, as well as very much richer” (Johnson, 221). In fact, “In 1797, after half a century of running seven seats (at £3,000 apiece), Lord Eliot calculated he had lost by his operations” (Ibid).


Bready, 121. In fact the emasculation of Parliament through bribery and corruption, extensive though it was in the 18th century, did nevertheless have its limits, since about 150 of its members were country squires who stood outside the circle of corruption and retained their political freedom. “Upon most of these,” said one experienced observer, “a good speech will have influence” (Johnson, 221).

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